Churning Politics: Wind Project Developments in Northern Ontario

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Photo: Steffanie DateThe rain held off yesterday for about twenty protestors in front of MPP David Orazietti’s constituency office on Great Northern Road in Sault Ste. Marie. The group was a collection of members from the Lake Superior Action Research Committee (LSARC),   concerned citizens for the North and Michipicoten First Nation Chief, Joe Buckell.

The assembly of demonstrators were asserting their long and dedicated stance opposing the installation of wind farms in Northern Ontario, and specific to the day the proposed wind farm development on Bow Lake, as well as protesting the Ministry of the Environments (MOE) consultation approaches with First Nation communities in regards to wind project proposals.

George Browne, a member of LSARC, stated, “We are out here in support of Michipicoten First Nation because they were badly treated through this process. They haven’t been consulted. Their land and treaty rights have been trampled upon. The MOE was made aware of these issues during the environmental bill of rights posting, and even prior to that by Chief Buckell, and the MOE has ignored these issues.”

Characteristic concerns associated with such projects are exacerbated for Chief Buckell because of an expressed territory dispute between Michipicoten First Nation and Batchewana First Nation. According to Buckell the disagreement over boundaries began four years ago when DP Energy, a renewable energy company based in Ireland, entered the picture. “The company was advised by the Ministry to speak with the First Nations about development. They went and spoke to the Batchewana Band and they said ‘well you don’t have to talk to anybody else. This is our land.’ So we didn’t even know that happened until after.”

Chief Dean Sayers of Batchewana First Nations rejects Chief Buckell’s assertion that Michipicoten was excluded from the process. In a phone interview today Sayers stated, “The developer started knocking on Michipicoten’s door four years ago but they said that they weren’t interested and that it’s Batchewana territory. Two years ago at the eleventh hour when they found out we were moving forward and developing, Chief Buckell sent a letter saying that they had an interest now. So we had no problem creating an opportunity for them to be involved in the project. All the partners were protective of the confines of the contractual agreements, so we needed him to sign confidential agreements and a non-disruption agreement. But we didn’t hear back from him.”

The question of territory remains but Chief Buckell stated that he did have a chance to examine the plans for development and expressed opposition to the Bow Lake wind farm. “It was a really bad spot for a wind farm. It’s only about 2 km from Pukaskwa National Park and it’s an area for migratory birds. We are supposed to be stewards of the earth. We’ve seen what’s happened over the years to the environment. All the aesthetics will be gone, all the blinking links, it will be very visible. And it does not make economic sense. There is a surplus of energy and they’re sending it out of province.”
However Chief Sayers feels that efforts undertaken by his Counsel mitigate any claims of harm to health and environment. “Batchewana has done our own environmental assessments that I believe are over and above the expectations of the Ministry of the Environment. We did a lot of research in the area. We brought Elders on the land to identify if we had any distinct flora, fauna and raptors that we needed to be more protective of. Our research found that it is a safe place for wind turbines. We had extensive consultation with our People and we encouraged Michipicoten to participate but the offer wasn’t taken up. We’re not trying to destroy the earth we’re trying to protect the earth.”

Sayers adds that the benefits from the wind project to the community are myriad. He anticipates that the band will hire 80 people from Batchewana First Nations as well as other First Nations people. “At the end of the day we’ll plug into the grid and we’ll have half a dozen full-time positions. The money generated from the project will help us with community needs- children’s programming, educational programs, housing programs, health programs and capital infrastructure development. There’s so many good things for Batchewana and the province that can come about from this.”

Photo: Steffanie Date
Debbie Shubat and Chief Joe Buckell

This February and March an Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) was organized in response to appeals brought forward regarding the proposed wind farm on Bow Lake as well as Goulais Bay. The decision on Bow Lake is pending but on April 17th the appeal made by Doug Moseley of the Goulais Bay wind project was dismissed by the ERT.

Photo: Steffanie Date
Doug Moseley,appellant in Moseley vs. MOE

Moseley was present at yesterday’s demonstration and commented, “It’s a reverse onus. We have to prove they’re dangerous but the Ministry doesn’t have to prove that they’re safe. We knew going in that we weren’t going to win but we went ahead with it because it’s a terrible thing. They’re destroying our environment, perhaps our health. Anyone within 10 km can suffer health effects and it’s destroying our economy with this increase in our electrical bill.”

Jim Fata and LSARC, both appellants in the Bow Lake review, are awaiting the ERT’s decision that could come any day now. In his submission before the ERT in March Fata stated that, “It is becoming well known that the engorgement by wind companies is gutting economies, causing net job losses as the costs of power guts manufacturing, that the green hysteria has led us to an environmental vandalism of the highest order.”

However, for individuals like Moseley and Fata, as well as grassroots groups, legal fees are often unattainable and the scope of the tribunal process is daunting. Browne commented, “One of the things the Environmental Review Tribunal really brought home to us was how unfair this process is. Community groups that are self-funded have to try to appeal a decision that will be defended by companies with tens of millions of dollars in the bank and the full resources of the government behind them. In order to conduct a successful appeal, or to at least stand a chance, it costs $300,000. What community group can afford that? The lawyers for the company and the MOE were there every day for the ERT and it wasn’t just one – it was two or three for each defendant. The access to justice is not there when you can’t afford legal representation.”

Photo: Steffanie Date
Jim Fata (left), speaks with Chief Buckell and Catherine Bayne

Debbie Shubat is a registered nurse and presented as an expert witness in the ERT of Moseley vs. MOE and as a witness in the ERT of Fata vs. MOE. Shubat believes that there is serious cause for alarm when considering the consequences to human health created by wind turbines.

“The noise from wind turbines has a direct effect on a person’s health particularly on their sleep. It could be related to audible noise, low frequency noise, or infrared sound. The government has pursued set backs of 550 meters for wind turbines but we don’t really know what a safe distance is. People are complaining about sleep disturbance, headaches, dizziness and ringing in the ears. Not everyone is affected this way but the vulnerable population such as the elderly, children, people who are susceptible to migraines or inner ear problems could be adversely affected. This is a worldwide phenomenon it’s not just in Ontario. I liken it to the tobacco industry. For years people said that there was no problem with smoking and that concerns were exaggerated. I think this is where we’re headed with wind turbine and noise.”

Photo: Steffanie DateIn a phone interview yesterday MPP and Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti, responded to claims about hazardous health impacts from wind turbines.

“What we do know is that there are very serious and negative consequences of coal fired energy in Ontario. Those studies are unequivocal in terms of their findings. At a government policy level I’m certainly pleased with the progress that we made in terms of turning off coal generation. It speaks to the reduction of the number of smog days in Ontario and in moving forward to lower costs to our health care system. With respect to wind project developments these are all relevant points.”
Orazeitti went on to add, “If the idea is that we should be building coal plants or coal fired energy in contrast that’s something that our party is opposed to. We’ve worked very hard and this is the first government in the history of this province to eliminate coal fired generation and we’re the first jurisdiction in North America to do so.”

Orazeitti also addressed concerns that the encroachment of wind turbines along the eastern shores of Lake Superior would negatively impact tourism. “In speaking with Tourism Sault Ste. Marie I was told that the best thing for tourism in the community is to renew the Agawa Tour Train. So our government provided 5 million dollars in partnership with CN Rail to revive the most prominent tour attraction that people will drive to see in this community. We’ve stepped up that type of investment to promote tourism in the region.”

But Catherine Bayne, member of LSARC, believes that the conservation and preservation of the shoreline and indeed the landscape of Northern Ontario needs to be protected. Referring to a collection of signatures she gathered for petitions to the provincial and federal government to halt wind turbine projects she commented, “I’ve stood on the Alona Bay Scenic Lookout with petitions and people from all across Canada and the world want to sign the petition to protect this landscape. They wanted to stop there because of the view. It is an inspiring landscape.”

Photo: Steffanie Date
Bob Mealey

Bayne lives just south of the Montreal River on Mica Bay and should the Bow Lake wind project ensue, will be affected by the installation of turbines. “In most cases people feel that a natural landscape is restorative. It’s a mental health boost that you don’t get in an urban area. Bow Lake in particular is of great worth to people who want to get away from noise. It is one place where your listening radius stretches way out as it must have done in primitive times, when there was no machinery to impose itself on your mind. To deprive us of that landscape that is so restorative is an abuse of our psychology. I think of it as mental cruelty. If you have seen what has happened across Ontario there’s profound mental anguish through all of these rural areas that have had wind turbines inflicted upon them.”

While the progress of the Bow Lake project may seem inevitable at this point, Chief Sayers isn’t denying the possibility of a resolution with Michipicoten First Nation. “We really want to sit down at the table. In regards to the historical differences we made a commitment that we want to sit down with our traditional keepers, our historians, our People and our Counsel. We want to resolve these historical differences. We need to live side by side. We need that to be a good relationship. It’s always been that way. We don’t want this development to sever that. We are open to resolving the issue and want to meet with the leadership of Michipicoten. The offer is still there.”

* BluEarth Renewables finalized the Bow Lake Project with Batchewana First Nations in January 2013.

Video by Mike Caruso