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TORONTO, ONT. - Dec. 17, 2009 - FOR FILES - The Toronto Hydro windmill on the grounds of the CNE at sunrise. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
TORONTO, ONT. - Dec. 17, 2009 - FOR FILES - The Toronto Hydro windmill on the grounds of the CNE at sunrise. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

MARCUS GEE

Windmill foes are full of hot air Add to ...

When not-in-my-backyard groups fight to kill a garbage dump or a gravel pit, it is at least possible to see where they are coming from. When they kill something like an offshore wind farm, designed expressly to help the environment, things are getting weird.

Last week, the government of Ontario quietly announced it was placing a moratorium on building wind farms in the Great Lakes. Well-organized residents groups have campaigned tirelessly against the idea. The transparently political decision, taken just months before a provincial election, douses Toronto Hydro's hopes of erecting a complex of wind turbines off the Scarborough Bluffs.

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Environment Minister John Wilkinson insists the decision was motivated purely by concern for the health of Ontarians. Unlike most wind farms around the world, he said on CBC Radio, Ontario's would be built not in the sea but in fresh water lakes. What if they affected our drinking water?

"The cautious thing to do is to say no," he said. "That's a lesson we learned from the Walkerton inquiry." The reference, of course, is to the tragedy in which several people died and hundreds became very ill from polluted water in the town of Walkerton, Ont.

This is exactly the sort of scare story that the lobby against wind farms has been spreading. John Laforet, president of Wind Concerns Ontario, told me that building wind turbines in Lake Ontario could stir up toxins in the lake bed and pollute Toronto's drinking water. There are "time capsules of toxins down there," he said. "The environmental disasters of the past have been buried in the sediment." Really? If so, it's a wonder we aren't all poisoned when dredgers dig in the lake bed, as they do regularly at harbours around the lakes.

He also said that offshore turbines are cleaned "basically with helicopters spitting solvent at them;" that the spinning windmills "change the direction of the wind;" that the vibrations they make could erode the fragile Scarborough Bluffs; and that windmill noise carried across the water could carry damage the health of people on shore - even though government rules decreed the windmills would have been at least 5 kilometres from land.

The fact is that windmills are a safe and clean way of generating electricity (though whether they are a cost-effective way is another question). A number of studies have debunked the idea that they harm human health. Last year Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health found that, although some people near windmills complain of headaches or insomnia, the scientific evidence does not show a link "between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects." An Australian-government study last July came to the same conclusion: "There are no direct pathological effects from wind farms."

Offshore wind farms have been running for 20 years in Europe, which has 39 of them from Belgium to Denmark to Britain. Studies have shown minimal effects on bird and marine life.

If no one has studied whether wind farms might pollute the water of freshwater lakes, it may be because the idea is plain silly. Wind turbines, like piers, are usually built on piles driven into the lake bed. After that, they just sit there spinning.

Even if they did cause some small harm, it would have to be measured against the harm caused by coal plants, nuclear plants and other energy sources. The forces of NIMBYism never make that kind of calculation. That is what we elect government to do: to weigh options against each other and choose one - not the one that annoys the least number of people, but the one that evidence says is the best for the common good. So much for that.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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