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Academics clash over wind farms; POWER DEBATE

Simcoe Reformer: JONATHAN SHER - September 3, 2010

They're in a fight that could shape wind power in Ontario, billions of dollars of investment and the green reputation of Dalton McGuinty's Liberals.

Two UWO academics are clashing over wind farms, each accusing the other's followers of demonizing their cause and bastardizing science.

A champion for those who believe wind turbines are making them sick, Dr. Bob McMurtry was dean of the medical school at the University of Western Ontario from 1992 to 1999.

His wind adversary is Dr. David Colby, an associate professor and medical officer of health in Chatham-Kent who believes the health link is more science fiction than science.

Their clash is more than academic: McMurtry expects both will end up as witnesses on opposing sides in what he hopes will be a landmark case challenging Ontario's Green Energy Act, which threw open the door for wind farms as part of a plan to ween Ontario off coal-fired power plants.

While both say they respect each other personally, neither can fathom the position of the other and each says he has been vilified by those on the opposing side.

"Th is was a vendetta against me," says Colby, who defended himself and his medical licence in the face of complaints he was a paid lackey of the wind industry, complaints dismissed by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Colby says he became the target of those he calls anti-wind activists after he was asked by politicians in Chatham-Kent to review medical literature to see if there was evidence turbines harmed people's health -- he concluded there was none.

"Hostility would be a good word to describe the reception to my work," he says.

McMurtry, too, says he has been attacked, accused of being an anti-environmental Neanderthal when the truth is the opposite.

"They libel and slander their opponents," he says of advocates for industrial wind farms.

McMurtry says he's concerned about climate change and pollution but contends coal-powered plants in Ontario are a tiny part of the problem and could easily be closed without building wind farms.

Beneath the heated rhetoric is a disagreement over science itself. While both agree some people near wind turbines complain of health issues, from there the two men venture down wildly divergent paths.

McMurtry believes turbines are the most likely culprit to ailments suffered by those close to them, the most common being the inability to sleep well, which increases the risk of chronic and deadly disease.

Turbines emit low-pitched sounds, some so low they're sensed only as vibration. Some turbine opponents argue those vibrations disrupt the body's normal rhythms and cause a long list of ailments. An American doctor, Nina Pierpont, reported complaints of headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, rapid heart rate, irritability and problems with concentration and memory.

Despite those who say there's a link, the Ontario government has given its blessing to a wind industry that may build $20 billion worth of turbines across the province and in its lakes.

McMurtry says Queen's Park should instead spend $1 million on research to establish how far back turbines need to be to safeguard health. Regulations require a 550-metre setback but McMurtry suspects a two-kilometre buffer is needed.

McMurtry is passionate about his cause. A former missionary, he says he's spent 3,000 hours on the issue and he created a Youtube video near his home in eastern Ontario's Prince Edward County, where wind farms are planned for the land and Lake Ontario.

"All of us need to act to oppose this madness," he says on the video.

Colby sees madness, too -- but from anti-wind activists.

The so-called ailments are common and have many causes unrelated to wind turbines, he says.

Colby reviewed studies of turbines twice --first for Chatham- Kent council, then at the request of wind power associations, the latter as part of an international panel of scientists.

Peer-reviewed studies found no link between ailments and turbines except one: A small number of people become upset by the presence of turbines and those feelings created stress that can contribute to their symptoms, he says.