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Wisconsin bill would grant wide latitude to sue wind farms

Wind turbines north of Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Michael Leland via Creative Commons)

Wind turbines north of Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Michael Leland via Creative Commons)

Wisconsin legislators are scheduled to take up a bill next week that would make it easier for people to sue for perceived health symptoms and property value impacts they attribute to wind turbines.

Under the proposal, anyone living within 1.5 miles of a wind turbine could sue for damages related to physical or emotional suffering, loss of property value, moving expenses, or lost profits, and the wind farm owner or operator would be forced to pick up the tab for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

It would also prohibit as a defense the fact that a project has already been legally permitted to operate by the state or a local government.

Opponents say the bill (SB167), if passed, would effectively put an end to wind development in Wisconsin and potentially drive up electricity rates in the state.

“The real intention of this is to kill wind [energy] in Wisconsin, and I would say it would do that,” said Joe Sullivan, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that support wind energy and transmission development.

‘Creating liability’

The bill was introduced in April by Sen. Frank Lasee, a Green Bay-area Republican with a long history of introducing legislation aimed at restricting wind farms.

Wind energy supporters had previously dismissed his latest lob at the industry as too extreme to gain traction even in Wisconsin’s conservative, Republican-dominated legislature. The bill stands in contrast to the majority party’s recent priority of tort reform that makes suing businesses in the state more difficult.

While no one is predicting it will pass, opponents say anything is possible now that Senate leaders have scheduled a public hearing for the bill.

“I think it’s real enough that I’m going down to Madison,” said Sullivan, who is based in St. Paul.

Other groups lining up to oppose the bill include the American Wind Energy Association, NextEra Energy, the Sierra Club, RENEW Wisconsin, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and the Wisconsin Utilities Association.

“It’s creating liability where one currently does not exist, and that could be costly for customers,” said Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association.

The bill isn’t specific about how far that liability extends, leaving opponents to interpret that it could apply to wind farm owners, operators, developers, utilities, even landowners who accept easements on their property.

“Who’s going to sign an easement if they know they’re subject to pay damages to somebody who lives a mile and a half away who thinks they’ve been emotionally harmed?” said Chris Kunkle, director of the Wisconsin Energy Business Association, which represents companies in the clean energy supply chain.

Supporters of the bill include the Wisconsin Realtors Association and an anti-wind group called the Coalition for Wisconsin Environmental Stewardship.

‘A drastic measure’

The labor and judiciary committee that will hear the bill next week is chaired by Sen. Glenn Grothman, the Republican assistant leader in the Senate who represents an area north of Milwaukee that includes one of the state’s largest wind farms.

He said he’s dedicating time to the bill because he believes something needs to be done to address complaints from his constituents near that project.

“I’ve talked to a dozen people in my area who made a very credible case that their health has been damaged, and obviously their property values have gone through the floor,” Grothman said.

While similar claims persist around wind farms, several recent studies have cast doubt upon them.

A wide range of symptoms dubbed “wind turbine syndrome” isn’t medically recognized and research suggests it could be a “nocebo effect” spread by anecdotal claims that cause others to believe turbines are making them ill, too.

Also, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study this year analyzed 50,000 home sales in nine states in 2012 and found no evidence that wind turbines affect home prices. That’s consistent with a 2003 study that looked at home values near a wind farm in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has uniform rules that limit local governments from adopting wind turbine setbacks larger than 1,250 feet. Sen. Lasee has sought to eliminate that cap before, and his wind litigation bill would create a de facto setback of 1.5 miles from any home to avoid legal liability.

The result would be a “wet blanket on any future wind development in Wisconsin,” Sullivan said.

The bill would also create “huge uncertainty” for existing wind farms, Sullivan said, because it appears to be retroactive. Owners or operators of existing wind farms could suddenly face tough decisions in order to avoid the risk of expensive lawsuits.

Sen. Lasee’s office did not respond to a request for an interview this week.

Sen. Grothman hinted that the bill may not advance as it’s currently written, but he said the issue needs to be addressed.

“I’m not sure in what form the bill would move forward,” Grothman said. “I think the bill is a drastic measure, and we’ll see what other suggestions we can come up with to help these people out.”

Wind on the Wires, the Sierra Club, RENEW Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Comments (11)

SB 167 is a model bill, not for “wind Farm” victims, but for coal mine victims. Coalfield citizens have to endure the lower quality of life caused by coal mining. They are told that a coal operator has every right to construct a high hazard coal slurry impoundment that upon failure would inundate thousands of residents with toxic yuck. This impoundment is forever in the community. Other notables include particulate matter containing carcinogenic materials spews from the coal processing plant; water resources are contaminated and lost; farmland is subsided; roads are closed and destroyed; rail traffic delays daily schedules. “Wind farm” victims should converse with citizens in Hillsboro, IL who have Deer Run Mine in their community.

By Mary Ellen DeClue on Nov 14, 2013

To be fair and provide equal treatment before the law, such legislation should not single out one industry but should provide uniform standards that apply to ALL industries. That would include frac sand mines.

As it is this opens up the doors for lots of lawsuits — what ever happened to tort reform? It’s a full employment act for attorneys, the science be damned.

By Andy Olsen on Nov 14, 2013

Wow. This certainly will drive job growth – for the lawyers!

By Natsecurity on Nov 14, 2013

Republican legislators in Wisconsin and Ohio (and elsewhere) will do anything they can to kill wind power so their coal owning and coal burning keepers can continue to pollute the air and give your kids asthma so they can make more money. Hey, its not their kids that are getting sick. Elections do have consequences.

By Joe Richardson on Nov 14, 2013

I find it fascinating that the wind industry admits that bats (mammals) hemorrhage to death and have the bones in their wings break due to barotrauma and pressure associated with industrial wind turbines, but human beings (mammals) must necessarily be making up impacts. I also find it fascinating that they deny adverse impacts of low-frequency noise and infrasound, which can and have been measured at industrial wind sites, when plenty of scientific data exists to support the claim that mammals can and are adversely affected by this inaudible form of noise. Dan Haugen, please critically read the Berkeley study you refer to. The homes studied were, I believe, 10 miles from the nearest turbine array.

By Mary on Nov 14, 2013

Mary – the entire sample of the LBL study was 50,000 homes within ten miles, but they also broke out the data for distances of one mile (1,198 homes) and 1/2 mile (331 homes). See pp. 37-38.

The study doesn’t eliminate the possibility that a property’s value could be impacted — obviously, a turbine placed between a home and, let’s say, its sweeping view of Lake Michigan might have an impact on that home’s resale price. What it found is there is no consistent statistical trend. In other words, of the many factors that influence a typical home’s value, presence of a wind turbine is insignificant.

Also, the issue with bats is the rapid change in air pressure within a close proximity to the turbine blade, not infrasound.

By Ken Paulman on Nov 14, 2013

Site those farms only on open space in Milwaukee and Madison.
All the folks that want them won’t allow them in their back yard. Problem solved.

By Tim on Nov 14, 2013

Wind farms don’t harm human health, anti-wind campaigners do. 19 reviews world wide of all of the available research and complaints by credible, independent groups have cleared wind farms of health impacts. Meanwhile, studies in the UK, Australia and New Zealand point the finger at anti-wind lobbyists spreading health fears and jacking up stress. http://barnardonwind.com/2013/02/17/wind-farms-dont-make-people-sick-so-why-the-complaints/

Infrasound produced by wind farms is harmless; humans evolved with infrasound and wind farms produce less than waves on a beach, yet beach front property is in major demand. http://barnardonwind.com/2013/02/20/humans-evolved-with-infrasound-is-there-any-truth-to-health-concerns-about-it/

Wind farms don’t harm property values: six major studies in the US and UK of almost 100,000 property transactions confirm this. As with health complaints, anti-wind campaigners whipping up fears are responsible for minor lulls before wind farms become operational, with properties often accruing value faster near operational wind farms. This makes sense: more jobs and more tax-revenue funded services make wind farm regions more attractive to people. http://barnardonwind.com/2013/02/19/property-values-evidence-is-that-if-wind-farms-do-impact-them-its-positively/

By Mike Barnard on Nov 14, 2013

I am sure the thousands of families suffering the negative impacts of living in an industrial wind complex are thrilled that so many find it soothing to live in the noisy, flickering shadow of this expensive, inefficient source, or lack thereof, of energy. There are plenty of properties for sale, so step right up and put your money where your mouth is! People do not abandon their homes without just cause. Yet they seem to be mocked for sharing their experiences. A study funded by the wind industry, to negate negative impacts of wind energy, clearly cannot be trusted. Simple commonsense, the vast majority of the population does not want to live in an industrial wind complex. I believe the truth would come from placing a bonded property value guarantee on any nonparticipating home within 2 miles of a wind complex. If “studies” are revealing properties are actually appreciating in wind complexes, then developers should have no issues commiting. I’m not anti-wind, although I don’t necessarily believe it is efficient, but what I am is for responsible siting of ALL forms of energy. Nobody deserves to suffer. Yes, sacrifices have to be made, but compensate the families that are complaining or suffering fair market value for their homes, and we all live in harmony. No complaints, and wind developers keep spinning their useless blades! Until this is done, the wind industry will continue to waste valuable R&D money on lawsuits and litigation.

By Aboggs on Nov 16, 2013

I think the first comment, by Mary Ellen DeClue, is on the right track. If you expanded liability to any entity that locally produces, transports, or sells energy, and the impact of their operations on anyone impacted in the state, in state and out of state sources of greenhouse gases could be held liable for the impact of their emissions on the local carbon footprint, and the proportionate impact on health, the environment, and the economy. Add in the more localized impacts of fossil fuel plants and you would see movement towards, rather than away from, greener sources of power and fuel.

All sources of power and fuel have the potential for some negative impact, but if all are weighted appropriately, we’ll see movement in the right direction.

By Steven McGrath on Nov 22, 2013

If Sierra Club and Audubon lost the sponsorship $$$ ponied up by these enormous wind factories, they’d be hurting units. Lot of money has changed hands to make industrial wind look “green”. Human elements aside, these turbines are an environmental and economical disaster.

By Penny Gray on Nov 23, 2013