KING CITY — Here in this northwest Missouri farm town, 27 industrial wind turbines have been generating more than electricity — health concerns, a federal lawsuit and a family feud, for starters.
The wind industry, which produces about 1 percent of the nation’s energy, has gained considerable purchase in the U.S, growing by 45 percent last year. The Department of Energy says wind could produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.
In rural areas where wind energy has moved in, the industry has provided an infusion of cash with its temporary construction boons to install the 200-ton turbines and the resulting increases in property taxes.
But wind energy has also taken its share of hits from critics who blame the heavily subsidized industry and its turbines for ruining the visual landscape, disrupting migratory fowl routes and killing large numbers of bats and birds.
Now come claims that industrial windmills cause what one researcher calls “wind turbine syndrome,” a range of symptoms that include headaches, anxiety, sleep problems and dizziness in some people who live close by.
“It’s like someone swinging a rope over your head,” says Gentry County horse breeder Charlie Porter of the several wind turbines within about 2,000 feet of his home near King City. “It’s not really a loud noise. It’s just a constant noise.”
Porter, 53, claims the 260-foot turbines installed by St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group near his 20-acre spread have been making his family sick since the turbines started rolling last year. Their symptoms include sleeplessness, anxiety and dizziness.
“It’s immediate,” he says. “If they’re running, you’re miserable. If they’re not you can try to stay outside and enjoy it all you can. It’s like a day off.”
The industry says there’s no evidence pointing to wind turbines as a cause of illness.
“You would need a lot of investigations into what the issues really are and what the complaints are and what the scientific basis for those complaints would be,” said Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. “Some people may be more sensitive than others.”
Tony Wyche, spokesman for Wind Capital Group, said Porter’s complaints were “purely subjective. ... And they stand up to neither the overwhelming consensus of his neighbors nor scientific evidence.”
But Nina Pierpont, a physician in Malone, N.Y., has been studying the effects of wind turbines on people and says wind turbine syndrome — the name she gave to the condition — is a potentially threatening problem.
“As industrial wind plants proliferate close to people’s homes and anywhere else people regularly congregate ... Wind Turbine Syndrome likely will become an industrial plague,” Pierpont says on her Web site. Pierpont declined interview requests, referring questions to her Web site.
Most symptoms resolve when people move away from turbines, she says.
The symptoms appear to derive from disturbances to the equilibrium system in the inner ear and elsewhere caused by the sound and vibrations from the turbines, Pierpont says. Not everyone is affected; people who experience migraines or motion sickness may be more susceptible, she says.
Mariana Alves-Pereira, an acoustical engineer at New University of Lisbon in Portugal, has been studying vibroacoustic disease, which has similar symptoms.
In her 2007 report on a family whose home in Portugal is within about 700 yards of four industrial wind turbines, Alves-Pereira said the family’s 12-year-old child suffered memory loss and fatigue after four months of the turbines going up.
In order to avoid ill effects, wind turbines “could be confined to wind parks, located at safe, (yet to be determined) distances from homes,” Alves-Pereira said.
Pierpont recommends industrial turbines be no closer than 1.5 miles to homes, schools or anywhere people frequent.
But Laurie Jodziewicz, American Wind Energy Association’s manager of siting policy, said the distance between homes and turbines is typically left to local governments; there are no federal requirements.
“So many people live near wind turbines that are not complaining about this, the jury is still out on this,” Jodziewicz said. “I haven’t seen anything that scientifically says a mile and a half setback for wind farms is what’s needed.”
Porter filed a lawsuit in March in U.S. District Court in Kansas City against the Gentry County Commission and Gary Carlson, who is a county commissioner and also Porter’s brother-in-law. Porter alleges Carlson beat him up in order to stop him from complaining about the turbines.
David Baker, Carlson’s attorney, declined comment. Commission attorney Steven Coronado said Porter’s claims were “without any basis in fact or any valid claim under the law.”
A couple of Porter’s neighbors, who also live close to turbines, said they feel no ill effects and support the wind farm.
Larry Sealey has two windmills within about 750 feet of his house and is paid $3,000 a year for each turbine on his land.
“We never had any industry before,” said Sealey, 66. “I think they’re paying the schools $250,000 a year alone. ... Besides, I can’t afford gasoline now, and if it gets to where we can’t afford electricity, I may as well crawl in a hole.”
Neighbor John McKinnon, 56, said the turbines are “beautiful,” and says he’s concerned about the tension in the area from Porter’s complaints.
“I just hope there aren’t any guns or stuff involved in this,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet.”
Porter wants to sell his property, but says he’s stuck because of the turbines.
“If you got however much money you got to buy a place out in the country, this isn’t going to be it,” he says.
There have been claims that Porter is bitter because he doesn’t have any turbines on his land and so is not reaping payments. But Porter said while he would welcome an offer for his property, money isn’t all he’s after.
“I say ’Tear down your turbines, don’t give me a nickel, and you’ll never hear my name again.”’