An ill wind blows

WIND power and coal seam gas don’t often get accused of being similar sources of energy, but one can’t help but notice the common threads running through the debates on both forms of energy and how they relate to public health in communities surrounding them.

James McGrath

Last month a vote on King Island, about halfway between Tasmania and Victoria, made waves (not wind).

The vote was on whether a feasibility study on a 200 wind turbine project on the island should go ahead.

The island community voted 58.77% in favour during the voluntary poll, according to media reports, but proponent Hydro Tasmania said it would only proceed if it gained 60% acceptance.

However, it has decided to go ahead with the feasibility study anyway.

It said that the 60% figure was merely an aspiration, rather than a stated requirement.

“I know some have implied that the figure of 60 is a number that will determine if the project goes ahead or not. However, we have always said that 60% would be a good indication of broad community support. We got 59% and that is a very good result,” Hydro’s Andrew Catchpole said after the votes were counted.

No TasWind, the main group trying to vote down the proposal, has been accused of misleading residents on the voting process even before it began.

It “had learned” that potential voters without a valid driver’s licence with a King Island address on it or on the electoral roll were being turned away from registration by Hydro Tasmania.

Hydro Tasmania hit back by suggesting that No TasWind was deliberately ignoring advice that residents could in fact vote with other forms of identification to paint Hydro as a dictatorial energy giant trying to stymie democracy on the island.

It’s the sort of exchange that would not sound out of place in a CSG debate.

Add the presence of Dr Sarah Laurie – who has long been warning about supposed health effects of wind turbines on local communities and is the head of the Waubra Foundation, an anti-wind lobby.

She says low-frequency noise from wind turbines has a range of harmful effects on the body, including tinnitus, balance problems, dizziness, headaches, and ‘fuzzy thinking’, or not being able to think clearly.

She was even quoted by the ABC as drawing a link between children with autism and wind turbines at a meeting on King Island.

“People with autism are known to be particularly noise sensitive,” she told residents at a meeting organised by anti-wind advocates.

“There are certainly children with autism, and families with more than one child with autism, who have a really difficult time the turbines start operating.”

Others have accused her of saying that lips will quiver uncontrollably within 10km of a wind turbine.

She’s also been accused of effectively pointing to wind turbines with a wink when talking to people with mild symptoms, tapping into feelings of solastalgia, a form of emotional distress caused by a changing environment.

While many of the claims made in relation to health and wind turbines seem incredulous, to put it politely, anti-wind lobbyists have been remarkably successful.

In fact, they’ve essentially managed to change the law.

Their presence in the debate over wind energy partially informed the Victorian government’s decision last year to put in a 2km exclusion zone between wind turbines and residences.

Doesn’t that sound vaguely familiar?

In fact, it’s very familiar because the NSW government took heat from the CSG industry by moving to put in a 2km ban between CSG activities and townships of more than 1000 people, a move driven by community concern over CSG.

Both the wind and CSG industries have claimed that the 2km rules have been put in with little consultation and very little actual scientific evidence that their energy-production methods have led to negative health consequences.

However, both anti-wind and anti-CSG groups have called for inquiries into the health effects of the energy-production methods.

While the anti-wind lobby appears to have little scientific weight backing it, the Australian Medical Association weighed into the anti-CSG debate in May by suggesting that a precautionary principle should apply and health-risk assessments be included in future projects.

Many against CSG took it as a sign that it was definitely unsafe.

After all, if the AMA had seemingly come out suggesting it were concerned, people living near CSG extraction sites should be as well.

However, AMA vice-president Dr Geoffrey Dobb, speaking with EnergyNewsPremium, said the call did not cast aspersions one way or another. It was simply a call for more information.

“The reason that the AMA is calling for health checks is to draw attention to the fact that there isn’t a lot of information about the health impacts of coal seam gas extraction and suggesting what we need is to have that information,” he said.

“In order to get it, we’re going to need population-based health information from the areas where coals seam gas extraction is occurring.”

However, that is not to suggest there are concrete signs that CSG is affecting health in a negative way.

“It’s true to say that there’s a lack of information that it’s harmful, and also a lack of information to confirm that it is safe.”

“It really does cut both ways,” Dobb said.

Dobb said the AMA was more concerned that an industry which had expanded rapidly had done so without adequate health checks upon it, nor quality research done on it.

He pointed to a review of health concerns among those living in the Tara region of Queensland as one of the few studies to be done, and said that it was a comprehensive review of the limited data available.

For the record, the review was multi-faceted, taking in patient interviews, and air and water sampling.

In particular, air sampling involved taking 13 samples using vacuum canisters at the behest of QGC. The canisters were sent to SGS Leeder Consulting for analysis, with the reporting of the analysis undertaken by Environmental Resources Management.

One of the samples was found to have elevated levels of benzene, with 25 micrograms per cubic metre recorded. The Australian National Environment Protection (Air Toxics) measure (2004) dictates that benzene should be below 10.3 grams per cubic metre.

A second sample taken from the same lot came in at 4.3 grams per cubic metre.

Yet another air sampling program used Sumna canisters to allow residents at the Wieamballa Estate to take samples (for about one minute) while the odours they had complained of were at their strongest.

The study concluded that while there were a number of volatile compounds in the air, they were at levels below relevant guidelines from Ontario and Texas, where oil and gas production was at a more advanced and prevalent stage than near Chinchilla.

The samples were analysed at the Queensland Government Forensic and Scientific Services Laboratory.

A separate survey done by the Queensland Department of Health also found that patients who presented for medical check-ups when called upon were often presenting with non-specific symptoms such as headaches and rashes.

Dismissing the report out of hand, saying there was a lack of data, the Lock the Gate Alliance suggested that the elevated level of benzene in one sample was of great concern.

However, Dobb suggested that reading too much into the report was folly, agreeing with LTG that the study could not be read as a referendum on the health impacts (or lack thereof) of CSG due to its limited nature.

“What we’re saying is that for any future projects, they should have the health issues considered and there should be projects to ensure that the sort of health information, those epidemiological studies, are done to see if there are any health problems occurs where this extraction is occurring,” Dobb said.

“There are some other studies which aren’t population based, but are just doing ongoing sampling of water and air quality.”

Importantly, the AMA has not called for a moratorium on all CSG activities but rather suggested that any new projects and existing projects be monitored.

Dobb also said that the AMA would not mind if it was the industry or government that collected the data, as long as the data was independently verified and scrutinised.

He acknowledged that there was anecdotal evidence that people were being affected by CSG extraction near them, but the extent of any such effects could not be known until further broad-ranging study was done.

But certainly there is anecdotal evidence that wind turbines cause all manner of maladies. In fact, shadow energy spokesman Ian MacFarlane has called for similar studies into the effect of wind as the AMA is calling for in relation to CSG.

However, there’s a world of difference between CSG and wind turbines, according to Dobb.

“There is much more information on that and those studies have been of the sort we’re asking be done with coal seam gas, and they showed there isn’t any increase in disease where there are wind turbines,” he said.

“People do complain about low-frequency sound being annoying, but that is certainly an impact but different from having an adverse impact on a specific disease.”

What is similar between wind and CSG is how people against these particular forms of energy are using health concerns to call for the complete cessation of all activity relating to these activities.

It’s where a reasonable call from a body such as the AMA calling for more information can be twisted to mean that the AMA is calling for a moratorium on all CSG activity, or that the AMA is involved in trying to stop the industry by laying on restrictive amounts of bureaucracy.

But in a world where people are conditioned towards binary conclusions, a call for more information is likely to be read as an implicit call of guilt, rather than simply a call for more information.

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