Up In The Air
Health Board Eyes Wind Turbine Regs
Members of the Chautauqua County Board of Health are considering stepping up Health Department regulation of industrial wind turbines.
At its most recent meeting, Health Board members discussed three potential actions. The first is a moratorium on construction of industrial wind turbines until there have been further studies on the topic that would provide local officials with more guidance. The second potential action is sending a letter to the county’s towns stating the Board of Health’s concerns with industrial wind towers and asking town officials to consider implementing town laws governing wind towers. The third potential action is to regulate industrial wind turbines through the county’s sanitary code, which would entail writing a local regulation and then receiving approval for the new language from the state Health Department. The Board of Health will send the letter to local town boards, but no action on a moratorium or changes to the sanitary code was taken.
Board member John Tallet initially proposed the moratorium, saying there seems to be evidence that wind turbines can cause significant health damage and that more study is needed. Board members discussed the moratorium idea, but weren’t sure if it would have enough impact to protect residents from health impacts of turbines built too close to homes. Tom Erlandson, Board of Health president, said regulations in other counties prevent industrial wind turbines from being built within a mile and a half of the nearest home. Some wind turbines in Chautauqua County have been built within a few hundred of feet of homes.
“It is the wild west of wind turbines,” Tallet said. “Stick them where you can. If people complain, it still doesn’t stop them from building them.”
Discussion then turned to encouraging local town boards to craft local laws that could put limits on wind turbines inside towns. While the Board of Health can’t make the town boards take such action, the letter from the county Health Board to towns could explain some of the county organization’s concerns and prompt action.
“That would be a way to at least prevent this continuing process,” said Dr. Robert Berke, Board of Health member. “We suggest the best practice is a moratorium until we have better information to show. The second thing is that towns begin to look at what they’re being offered and to have guidelines before they go ahead with these things, setting setback guidelines and decibel levels.”
Christine Schuyler, county public health director, then suggested using the county’s sanitary code as a way to provide some regulation to wind farms. Schuyler said the sanitary code has a section on nuisances that applies to things like fumes and tires and was used to regulate tattoo businesses, and body piercing establishments before the state eventually took its own action.
The Board of Health can approve a change to the sanitary code and then send it for approval to the state Health Department. The local changes takes effect if the state approves. Berke said such an approach makes sense because the county does regulate things like septic tanks and restaurants because it is known that not obeying certain guidelines can imperil public health. Schuyler noted that the Board of Health may want to take multiple actions at the same time because changing the sanitary code can take some time. Asking the Chautauqua County Legislature to consider a countywide moratorium and then having towns implement their own laws governing wind turbines could give the Board of Health the time it needs to prepare appropriate language for the sanitary code.
“Is there evidence that sounds over ‘X’ decibels is injurious to your health?” Berke asked. “If there’s evidence of that then it behooves us to delve into our sanitary code that (noise) is abated in this county and it’s abated by obviously separation or distance. Obviously, they have to be able to show they aren’t generating that kind of decibel level at the nearest home to them. Obviously if you’re standing next to the thing you’re going to be getting whatever noise it generates, but I don’t see a problem with us using what we already have, which is science, that anything over 35 decibels at a constant level is considered injurious to your health.”
Schuyler then asked if the Board of Health was perhaps thinking about a different tactic of regulating wind turbines like the county regulates restaurants. Such regulation wouldn’t fall under the existing nuisance code, and Schuyler said it would take more time to write a sanitary code section that implements a fee schedule and an inspection and enforcement schedule that would then have to be approved by the state Health Department.
“I’m thinking if the board considers this under nuisance, quite often a nuisance is after the fact,” Schuyler said. “We get a complaint that is generated, an investigation ensues and then if we do find there is a nuisance it must be abated. What we’re talking about here is enforcement, which we already have some wind farms that are up. If I go out and slap a sticker on there and tell them it has to come down they’re really going to laugh. When we’re looking at prevention and moving forward and putting a halt to the one in progress, I think it would have to come under the regulation and we could be really stepping into a place that isn’t really within our jurisdiction. Unfortunately the state Health Department has not really taken the action that we have all asked them to take. We have asked them to make sure that a full SEQR is done and that the public health impacts of wind turbines were studied before this was allowed, the same as we did with tattoo and piercing shops. Instead of waiting for them to do it, we did it.”
Berke said that perhaps the county taking action before the state Health Department does could prompt state action, as it did with tattoo and body piercing.
“They have so many fish to fry,” Berke said. “They have a bazillion things going on up there. Until you step up and put this, and I’m sure just with us meeting tonight, it’s going to be somewhat newsworthy that we are looking at the regulation of wind farms from a public health point of view. That will immediately put a shot across the bow of these people and they’re going to have to think a little bit about these projects and also the people who are out there and have people throwing money at them. You might as well start the game and see what happens. It’s a lot of work.”