For the first time since the state began promoting wind power, environmental officials have recommended shutting down a wind turbine because of elevated noise levels that they described as unacceptable to local residents.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, in a long-awaited response to Falmouth residents’ complaints about noise from two turbines, released a report Tuesday finding that one turbine less than 1,500 feet from the nearest home repeatedly exceeded allowable noise levels.
The findings give ammunition to increasingly vocal opponents of wind power, who have sought to slow the Patrick administration’s efforts to produce 2,000 megawatts of wind power - three-quarters of it from offshore sources - by 2020, up from about 45 megawatts available today. The Falmouth turbines produce a total of 3 megawatts of power.
“Obviously, we take these findings extremely seriously,’’ said Kenneth Kimmell, the state environmental protection commissioner. “But I don’t think we should jump to conclusions that the experience here can be generalized to other locations.’’
He said numerous other turbines operate in similar proximity to residential areas, such as those in Fairhaven, Hull, and Kingston. Residents in those areas have also fought vigorously to shut down turbines in their communities.
“I think [this report] demonstrates that Massachusetts DEP calls balls and strikes in an impartial way and holds wind turbines to the same standards as we apply to other industries,’’ Kimmell said. “But there are other turbines operating in residential areas, which have not led to similar complaints. So these results do not implicate turbines everywhere.’’
The agency recommended that the Falmouth turbine that regularly increased noise by more than 10 decibels at the closest home be turned off immediately, for at least 30 days, while the state conducts further studies. The other turbine will be switched off at night but be allowed to remain in operation during the day, pending the additional studies.
Town officials said they have been working closely with state officials over recent months to assess the complaints. They said they decided to stop the turbines from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. several weeks ago, and that they have agreed to shut down one of the turbines until state officials complete their testing.
“My first reaction to this report is it’s about time,’’ said Eleanor Tillinghast, a steering committee member of Windwise ~ Massachusetts, which has opposed wind projects around the state. “People have been complaining about severe health effects almost as soon as the first turbine began operating. The effects have been severe and chronic. . . . This is happening all over the world.’’
The DEP findings come several months after a panel of independent scientists and doctors convened by the agency found little to no evidence that wind turbines pose a risk to the health of residents living near them.
That panel concluded that there is no rigorous research showing that churning turbines or the resulting flickering light and vibrations produce dizziness, nausea, depression, or anxiety - a set of symptoms that critics of wind power call “wind turbine syndrome.’’
The panel found limited evidence that a “very loud wind turbine could cause disrupted sleep, particularly in vulnerable populations, at a certain distance, while a very quiet wind turbine would not likely disrupt even the lightest of sleepers at that same distance.’’
“But there is not enough evidence to provide particular sound-pressure thresholds at which wind turbines cause sleep disruption,’’ it added.
The wind power critics cite a host of anecdotal evidence of dangers to residents living less than a mile from large turbines, such as those in Falmouth, where the first one was erected three years ago at a local waste treatment facility. They say the whirring of turbines can result in symptoms such as migraines, vertigo, motion sensitivity, and inner-ear damage, particularly in abutters who are 50 years old or older.
In Falmouth, where the wind project cost local residents $5 million and state and federal taxpayers another $10 million, neighbors said they were relieved by the results of the report.
Annie Cool, 53, a real estate broker who lives about 1,600 feet from the turbines, said she has trouble sleeping at night because the whirring sounds like “a boot in a dryer.’’
“This report is a long time in coming,’’ she said. “The town of Falmouth made a quick decision to place those turbines in a residential area, and when they realized it may have not been the best decision, rather than doing the right thing and moving the turbines, they went into a long, exhausted financial exercise to prove that the neighbors were crazy.’’
She added: “Do I feel a little vindicated by the report? Yes, because it shows we’re not crazy. But do I trust that the town and the state will do the right thing? Not on your life.’’
Todd Drummey, 48, a financial planner who lives 3,000 feet from the closest turbine in Falmouth, compared the noise of the turbines to jets and pile drivers, depending on the weather. He said shutting them down, at least temporarily, was a good first step. “But what I would really love to see is that they’re moved,’’ he said, adding he also has trouble sleeping at night.
The turbine being shut down will be turned on occasionally for testing, officials said. The other turbine will continue to operate during the day.
“I absolutely think this makes sense,’’ said Mary Pat Flynn, chairwoman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen.
She said town officials could move the turbines, provide financial compensation to abutters, or consider ways to blunt the sound. “We have options besides shutting them down,’’ she said.
Kimmell noted that the Falmouth turbines are of an older generation than other turbines being installed around the state. He said their age, as well as their location, may make them louder than other turbines.
In a statement, state Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, said she hopes the agency’s report brings residents relief, noting that the turbines have divided the community.
“As I’ve said in the past, I believe that industrial-size wind turbines do not belong in residential neighborhoods, but we should not remove wind energy from the renewable energy mix in Massachusetts,’’ she said. “Wind energy has the potential to provide our cities and towns with many environmental and cost-saving benefits. But we need to site these projects responsibly.’’
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.