FALMOUTH – Windmill, or industrial-sized turbine? Words matter. That was the first lesson I learned.
Almost two years ago, for a few weeks before the turbine known as “Wind 2” was about to be turned on, I began what I had hoped would be a book project on the Falmouth Wind Turbines. The project, unfortunately, had to be canceled. I opened a beer, and followed the story in the local newspaper and on cable access television.
I soon discovered a new TV show about the turbines, The Falmouth Selectmen’s Meeting. It had everything – great characters, drama, and incredible plot turns. I made popcorn.
And then astonishingly, what I had guessed might happen was actually happening. The selectman recommended that Falmouth be the first community in the United States to put up turbines, and then take them down.
They had already stopped running the town’s two turbines at night, and they had stopped running them if the wind was higher than 23 miles per hour. Neighbors had long and publicly complained of what they called “wind turbine syndrome,” health symptoms like insomnia, headaches, stress, and more that they associated with the start up of the 400-foot-tall turbines in their neighborhood.
Complicating matters was a privately-owned third turbine of the same size in a nearby industrial park that was also the subject of neighbor’s complaints. But that’s a sidebar that you won’t get to read today. This is about the town’s turbines. Town Turbines – good band name. But I digress.
With limited use, the turbines were losing money. The selectman and town meeting have decided to cut their losses, dismantle and sell the turbines, and turn the page. But it’s expensive, so it needs a townwide vote to override Proposition 2-1/2. It is up to the voters to make the final call.
The town estimates a cost of $15 million to dismantle and take away the turbines – a significant cost to every Falmouth taxpayer, taxpayers who once expected to benefit from the turbines. That cost is also in question, as wind advocates say it could be $25 million or more.
Turbines bother people? Why would anyone think that? Turbines are green energy. Green is good. Right?
The election is Tuesday, May 21.
The wind turbines are located at the town wastewater treatment plant. That’s just a fun fact.
I visited some house whose owners complained about the turbines. These houses had yards carved out of rough terrain and were, without exception, meticulous and detailed as if years of love had gone into them. Often, it was these beautiful yards that neighbors said they could no longer use.
In my hours of interviews in the summer of 2011 in the backyards, kitchens, front decks and top decks of houses that would be the ground zero of Falmouth wind turbine syndrome, I learned two specific things:
1.I didn’t feel anything. It sounded like soft ocean waves (I once smelled the treatment plant.)
2.The people I talked with for hours were deeply affected. This did not feel in any way made up. Is that journalism, or is it empathy?
I also thought of the argument of cumulative effect of living near those huge turbines rather than just visiting, as I had done. For instance if I poke you in the arm once, no big deal. If I poke you a few times, who cares? If I do it all day long, every day, you might develop arm poke syndrome. Maybe that explained my duel reaction after all those hours out there.
Ever since I’ve heard of it, I have blamed wind turbine syndrome for everything that goes wrong in life. As a crutch, I love me some wind turbine syndrome.
I do not live anywhere near the turbines but if the Red Sox lose, I blame wind turbine syndrome. If I am stuck in traffic, you guessed it… wind turbine syndrome. I like to play little games like this with myself because I think that is how a large number of people think of wind turbine syndrome.
I don’t know what I think, except that it’s a complicated story that can be explained pretty simply. The town tried to do the right thing, and now every resident in the town, by virtue of having to deal with this, essentially has wind turbine syndrome.
Is it real? It feels real. And yet, that’s how Stephen Colbert defines “truthiness.”
Besides interviewing neighbors and attending a few government meetings, I was also invited to attend one neighborhood meeting of the opposition to the turbine, in which I heard one neighbor say, “Slowly, it has become politically correct to say take them down.”
As he said it, I was skeptical. Taking down brand new wind turbines? This was going to be interesting. Of course, there were issues about whether the “new” turbines were even new. Every bit of phrasing could be challenged. Remember, words matter.
But what kind of political machinations was it going to take for it to become politically correct to say, take the turbines down? After all, Falmouth is an environmentally-conscious, scientist-filled global-warming-concerned and enlightened community. Take down green energy? Take it down in Falmouth, home of the the famous Woods Hole scientific institutions, one of the main places on Earth where global warming is seriously studied?
How do you spin that?
It turns out, brilliantly. There are yard signs all over Falmouth that say, “Heal Our Town.”
Entire forests have died printing Letters To the Editor in the Falmouth Enterprise about the wind turbine controversy. The Enterprise Letters page is a true community forum.
Planning Board member Rich Latimer, who once had a Letter to the Editor published in New Yorker magazine, wrote this to the local paper on May 7 about how politics began with opponents “belching propaganda about “wind turbine syndrome,” an alleged medical condition that is not supported by any actual science or even a coherent physiological analysis. Instead it is a complaint-based hysteria driven by anti-wind propaganda, a “nocebo effect,” as several prominent Falmouth physicians have explained. Still, a cadre of “concerned citizens” joined in the cause to “heal” our town, based on the activists politically driven anti-wind propaganda, elevating the interests of a handful of citizens over the welfare of the town as a whole.”
It was a brilliant letter by a brilliant letter writer. He may be right. I don’t know. But I am very suggestable on almost all things. I wanted to get wind turbine syndrome when I visited. Nothing. It raises and maybe answers the question, is it a choice?
That’s the other funny thing about wind turbine syndrome. Some people seem to get it, while others don’t. Sometimes in the same house. There were significantly different reactions among neighbors.
There is a lot of politics involved in this. I have not interviewed anyone for almost two years for this story. When I was originally working on this in the summer of 2011, I tried contacting dozens of people on both sides of the issue. Some worked with me willingly, some reluctantly, and many did not return repeated emails or calls. More often than not, town officials who were involved in approving the turbines and those in favor of the turbines were the ones who would not respond to my queries. I do not know what it meant. I just noticed.
One wind advocate agreed to be interviewed, and then began the interview by accusing me of being biased. He told me I was not allowed to quote him. There was no interview. This old reporter had not seen anything like this in Falmouth. Somehow, the wind turbine issue had touched a raw nerve.
But John Carlton-Foss was an outlier. He spent hours telling me his story and educating me on lots of issues. Carlton-Foss, who frequently writes to the Enterprise about the turbine issue, is opposed to taking down the turbines. At the time we spoke, he was neutral as to what to do.
He is the CEO of Strategic Energy Systems and a scientist who studies energy issues. He has followed the turbine story closely. When we met, Carlton-Foss struck me as a voice of reason. He believed, as I’d come to believe, that the neighbors felt something. He was searching for evidence as to the cause.
Heather Harper, at the time acting town manager, was the only town official who met with me. I remain grateful, and impressed by her professionalism. Other town officials and pro-wind people seemed unwilling, for some reason, to wade with me into the quagmire.
And it was a quagmire.
The tangential and seemingly algorithmic roles of regulation, money, energy grids, global warming science, and personal health histories was nothing that looked like a straight line.
Activists who bragged they were “passionate” became involved.
Then, the experts came to town. There were studies, and hearings, and mediation and attempts at group hugs. An advertising executive I once worked with explained to me that the true way to become an expert in America is to call yourself an expert. In this very public argument in which both sides had lots of experts, it began to feel that way.
In fact, there are always three sides to every story. Your side, my side, and the truth.
In July 2011, Barry Funfar hung a ketchup-stained scarecrow on the gates of the Falmouth Wastewater Treatment plant, where the two town turbines are located. The scarecrow was wearing a sweatshirt that said, “The wind turbine is killing me.”
A Vietnam Veteran who served 127 missions as a gunner on a helicopter, Funfar has post traumatic stress syndrome. The turbines bother him. He wants everyone to know. On his rooftop deck looking at a spinning turbine, he told me, ““I’m pissed, I’m traumatized, and I don’t want to see anything out there. I hate wind turbines.”
Funfar is one of the lightening rods on this issue. He’s also, in my mind, a good guy. I asked another good guy, Carlton-Foss, about Funfar. “He’s a character, and I kind of like him,” said Carlton-Foss.
I wrote a lot of first paragraphs to my original project about the Falmouth wind turbine drama. One was this:
“In November 2010, as a reaction to a 400-foot tall municipal wind turbine installed 1662 feet from his house in Falmouth on Cape Cod, former Marine Barry Funfar removed all the guns from his house. His Marine counselor recommended the step as a way to control the anger and post traumatic stress disorder that Funfar claimed was exacerbated by the noise from the turbine.”
After hours of talking to Funfar, Neil and Betsy Andersen, and others, wind turbine syndrome felt like an emotional fact. Their pain was palpable.
Carlton-Foss, with an alphabet’s worth of PhDs and MBAs and one of the more impressive resumes in Falmouth, had different facts. He agreed with me that he believed the neighbor’s legitimately felt something. But there was no legitimate evidence pointing to the turbines as the cause, he said. I believed him. I trust science.
But everyone seems to have a study, and an expert. It’s enough to make one dizzy. Facts, emotional and otherwise, have seemingly moved like the wind with this story. Of course, facts don’t move. Perceptions do.
Neil Andersen and his wife Betsy spent hours explaining to me what had happened to their lives since the turbines started up. Brian Elder took me on a tour of his backyard on Blacksmith Shop Road and said, “I focus on that whoosh. Once I do, I can’t get it out of my mind… At certain wind conditions, if you’re lying in bed, you know that’s not the ocean. If it’s windy and it starts thumping, it throws a pressure wave at the house. Your body starts to tell you to get the (expletive) out of here. Something’s wrong.”
Shut the turbines off, but leave them up. That’s what a friend of mine recommends. “Put a big ‘FREE’ sign at the top like you do on a bureau you put out on the front yard. See if anybody will come haul it away.”
I do like the idea of shutting the turbines off and leaving them right there. Falmouth’s newest tourist attraction, located symbolically at the wastewater treatment plant, could be the home of a museum. Think about it. Get Texas Governor Rick Perry to come to the grand opening. Call it the “Oops Museum of Government.”
— Brian Tarcy