Lessons from the ‘Close Enough’ school of environmental assessment

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By Mark Leeming

It is a common and rueful observation among parents that children of a certain (broad) age range tend to look for things in a few convenient places and then quickly give up the search. The next step usually is to call for Mom, whose magical ability to find the unfindable is fairly easy to explain: she knows where to look. Her advice to the kids – “Open your eyes!” – is probably pretty universal too, which is comforting in a way: we all grow up and learn to look for things in the right places. The system works.

Except when it doesn’t. Some of us apparently didn’t learn Mom’s lesson well, and of those who didn’t a surprising number are working to knock up wind turbines around Pictou County.

By now most everyone in the county must know of the wind power plant on Dalhousie Mountain, but that is not the only development of its kind in the area. Without any towers up yet, Shear Wind Inc.’s Glen Dubh project on the Antigonish county border is not as well known as it should be – well known for one-eyed attempts at science, that is.

There are sufficient examples of careless searching in Shear Wind’s work to fill a much larger essay and astound even a mother of three, but let’s focus on a particularly demonstrative one: their wildlife studies.

Part of the business of environmental assessment is to predict the impact on local wildlife, so when the Glen Dubh assessment was submitted in 2008 there was a bat population study included. As these things go, it was straightforward stuff: the researchers put recording devices in the woods and attempted to deduce by sound the number of bats flying at different heights. Ideal, if the study area weren’t eight kilometres away from the nearest turbine. Having failed to search for hibernacula in the project area, and able to say little more after such a distant study than “bat fatalities may result,” Shear Wind promised only a “monitoring program.”

Bats aren’t much loved, it’s true, but they are important animals nonetheless. Anything that eats as many insects as they do ought to be the ugly little mascot of a province that wants to preserve its forests and farms in good health. Unfortunately wind turbines spell trouble for bats everywhere; the spinning blades create areas of low air pressure that rupture their lungs without any contact at all. The numbers killed can be massive, but they can also be negligible. It all depends on the site, and on knowing its dangers beforehand.

Of course, bats are not alone at risk from carelessly located wind turbines. An earlier concern with birds has never disappeared.

Shear Wind had a bird study completed in 2007, as required, to match its bat study. The main conclusion to come of it was that the bird populations of the Pictou-Antigonish highlands needed a much closer look before the effects of a wind power plant could be determined with any certainty. In broad terms, the researchers could only say that the edge of the highlands would be a particularly sensitive area. Rather than take that closer look, Shear Wind decided instead to move a third of their turbines out of the configuration studied and up to the edge of the highlands. Their explanation: “there is no evidence” that the redesigned project “will have an impact on the bald eagle population.”

Indeed, there is seldom evidence found where none is looked for.

Ironically, looking in the wrong place for information about wildlife goes against the logic of the wind industry’s own favourite argument. For years, whenever opponents pointed to the infamous Altamont Pass wind power plant in California and its hundreds of hawks and eagles killed annually, developers would insist that Altamont was an early adopter’s mistake, placed on a ridge line without any study of how that particular site would affect the number of bird strikes. Site-specific impact studies became an industry mantra. Shear Wind’s off-target bird and bat studies are exactly the opposite of the supposed new standard.

Now, it is no secret that when it comes to any new industrial development people usually care more about the health of their own species than any other, and despite my belief that the two interests usually coincide, I sympathize. Wind power opponents focus their fire where experience has focused their fears: human health. Of Nova Scotians forced from their homes by wind power plants we can already count one family in Pubnico. Of Canadians with injured health in this and all other provinces, more exist than I have space to enumerate.

Despite those precedents and despite exemplary action on health protection by municipal governments across Canada (at least 60 in the turbine-threatened province of Ontario alone), Pictou County’s legislated setback from residential property remains only one turbine’s height, and Shear Wind’s search for possible health threats remains as myopic as their search for bats and birds. It is eerily familiar language with which they dismiss the issue: there is, they say, “no scientific evidence to support” the possibility of harm to nearby residents. Once more, none sought, none found.

Corporations are not children of course, however they may act the part, and words like “negligent” get thrown at them more often than personal advice. But when someone with such a heavy responsibility to the health of an entire landscape and community does behave like a five-year-old who can’t find his mittens in just the spot he cares to look for them, I do wish there were a government regulator ready to tell him to open his eyes. The courts must be tiring of playing Mom to developers and governments both.

Mark Leeming of Pictou County is currently working on a PhD at Dalhousie University

Organizations: Shear Wind Inc., Dalhousie University

Geographic location: California, Pictou County, Dalhousie Mountain Antigonish Pubnico Canada Ontario

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