05/17/2016 02:38 EDT | Updated 05/18/2017 05:12 EDT

Unifor's Wind Turbine: Grandfathering Harmful Noise

Plagued from its beginning by controversy and compliance issues, Unifor's wind turbine continues to operate in defiance of mandatory noise audits and despite hundreds of noise complaints from families forced to live near it.

Unifor's wind turbine towers over a neighbourhood in Port Elgin, Ontario/Karen Hunter

Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union (formerly the CAW) owns and operates a wind turbine that generates revenue for the union through taxpayer subsidies. Plagued from its beginning by controversy and compliance issues, Unifor's turbine continues to operate in defiance of mandatory noise audits and despite hundreds of noise complaints from families forced to live near it.

Unifor's turbine is not only contentious, it should be illegal by today's standards due to legislation that came into effect May 1st. But, it's not the first time the turbine has had this problem. And, the union has always managed to solve it -- with a little help from its friends in the Ministry of the Environment (MOE).

Unifor's wind turbine is a square peg the union forced into a round hole. Located at their Family Education Centre (FEC) in the tourist community of Port Elgin on Lake Huron, the turbine sits in a sports field adjacent to the facility's parking lot. The 35-storey, 800kw turbine towers over a neighbourhood of about 200 homes with some as close as 210 m.

The union chose the FEC location over a remote plot of 128 acres of undeveloped land it owned about a mile away because, President Ken Lewenza said (in the Shoreline Beacon, Dec.20/11), the undeveloped land was "economically or environmentally unfeasible." No sooner was the turbine built, the union subdivided the undeveloped land into building lots and sold them for substantial profit.

The union's decision to locate its turbine in a densely populated neighbourhood posed many legislative hurdles. But, none the union hasn't been able to handle -- at least, so far.

In 2005, when Town Council objected to the turbine's location, the union took the case to the provincial municipal board (OMB) and got the rejection overturned.

When noise modeling analysis showed that the turbine's noise would exceed provincial standards for a rural community (making it illegal), the union and the MOE agreed to classify the rural neighbourhood as semi-urban to accommodate the increased noise. The turbine's noise problem was solved. But, not for long.

Soon after, the MOE issued new legislation focused on health and safety, requiring turbines of its height and power to be located a minimum of 550 m from homes. Again, the not-yet-built turbine would be illegal. However, the MOE agreed to grandfather the union's turbine approval certificate, exempting the turbine from the mandatory 550 m setback. The union had dodged another bullet. But, the turbine wasn't yet in the clear.

New noise assessments on the turbine (due to the union's decision to upgrade it to 800kw) showed it would again exceed provincial noise standards. Once more, it was illegal. This time, the union said it would run the turbine at less than full power to reduce noise despite a reduction in revenue. Under this special agreement with the MOE, the union was given full authority to manage both the turbine's operating power and its noise level policing. In return, the MOE required noise audits to be conducted by the union within the first two years of operation to ensure compliance with provincial standards.

What's more, under this unique "depowering" arrangement, the union now qualified for a "zero setback from homes" classification. And, as a bonus, the power reduction expedited the turbine's connection to the grid. Not only was the turbine legal again, it was a win-win-win for the union.

As construction began, a proud Ken Lewenza stated (in the Shoreline Beacon, Dec.20/11), the "turbine meets all provincial health and safety requirements...Our windmill project is in full compliance with provincial standards."

Fast-forward to 2016 and the turbine's fourth year of operation. Hundreds of community noise complaints have been filed. The turbine's mandatory noise audits have not been completed. An on-line petition calls for provincial government action. And, now legislation (eliminating zero setback and requiring 550m for turbines of this size and power) should make Unifor's turbine once again illegal by current provincial standards.

But, the union's been down this road before and knows how to solve these problems. The provincial government has been there too and knows how to help. Grandfathering Unifor's turbine may again be their solution. But, in doing so, Unifor and the MOE are also grandfathering harm on the families forced to live near it.

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