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Sarnia Residents Are Battling Suncor Over Wind Turbine Regulations

Near Sarnia, a battle over electricity-generating wind turbines is brewing between the mayor and council of Plympton-Wyoming, and energy giant Suncor.

by Colin Graf
Feb 25 2014, 7:30pm

Cornelis with a sign, on his property. All photos by the author.

The snowy fields of southwestern Ontario, dotted with occasional barns, houses, and silos, give little hint of the struggle going on within the hearts, minds, and property rights of rural people. A struggle that some say will change their lives and permanently alter their landscape.   

This week, the fight over rights to erect electricity-generating wind turbines moves from the rural side-roads near Sarnia, where land agents have been persuading farmers to host the giant towers, to a nearby courthouse. Spurred on by their residents, the mayor and council of Plympton-Wyoming take on both energy giant Suncor and Ontario’s controversial Green Energy Act tomorrow in a David-and-Goliath battle to assert local control over the locations and numbers of wind turbines to be built.

“We’re just the public fighting a billion dollar corporation,” said Keith Watson, 55, whose family has farmed in the area for generations. Watson entered the fight after a town council meeting where Suncor said locals couldn’t tell them where to build, or they would have to “tattle” to the province about their resistance to the turbines. Since that time, he and others have formed the lobby group PW-WAIT (Plympton-Wyoming—We’re Against Industrial Turbines) to try to stop Suncor’s plan, which calls for 46 towers across the area. “That’s only Phase 1,” said Watson, who believes close to 90 percent of his neighbours and friends oppose the plan.    

Suncor launched the case after the town passed a by-law demanding at least two kilometres between each turbine. The provincial Green Plan, passed in 2009, allows developers to build them with only a 550m space. 

Considering that provincial laws usually override local ones, Watson isn’t terribly hopeful about tomorrow’s hearing. “We might just have to lose in order to win,” he mused, citing the fact that other court cases in the province may appeal lower court decisions, and try and make a case under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. His group hopes the town will appeal if they lose Wednesday also.

Another sign on the Cornelis property.

Suncor would not comment this week about the Plympton issue, for fear of prejudicing the case, but last year company spokesperson Michael Southern said the company has taken the “very rare step” of legal action because no agreement could be reached with the council. “We would prefer to work with the municipality,” he said at the time, but it seems no turbines could be built at all in the area with the two kilometres setback the council wants, Southern added. Watson and Cornelis say Suncor could squeeze in about four or five of the huge generators under the local rules.

Since the Green Energy Act came into force, wind developments have sprouted around southern Ontario, and in front of them, fighting mad, are local opposition groups such as PW-WAIT. The Act, meant to promote the growth of alternative energy sources, has created a wave of political backlash, largely credited with almost wiping out the governing Liberal party in rural Ontario in the 2012 election, reducing the party to minority status in the provincial legislature. With more than 50 citizen action groups across the province listed on the website of Ontario Wind Resistance, an umbrella organization for wind opponents, the protestors are stepping up for an even bigger fight, as another election is widely-expected this spring. 

Whatever the outcome of the hearing is, divisions in the community will remain like the scars from excavation for other turbines going up already, just down the road to London. “As one woman said to me: ‘If it pits neighbour against neighbour, family members against each other, and friend against friend, you just don’t do it,’” recounted Watson on a recent afternoon at the local Tim Horton’s. With the likelihood of the giant towers going up near property lines, some neighbours won’t even meet each others’ eyes when they pass on the road, said Watson’s friend Ron Cornelis, whose family home and farm will have a turbine looming over from the property next door if Suncor gets approval from the court and a final go-ahead from a government agency. That approval process is set-up “totally backwards,” so opponents have to prove the turbines will cause harm, rather than demanding the companies prove they’re safe, fumed Cornelis. “It’s a good thing they don’t bring new drugs out for people that way,” he offered in comparison. 

“Living in the county here isn’t like it used to be,” said the tall father of one. A local family he knows is badly split, with two brothers and father working to erect turbines, while two other brothers are members of the PW-WAIT group. The family still gets together, but “it’s not like it should be,” he said. “The mom doesn’t allow turbine talk when the family meets." 

According to Cornelis, people who sign leases for turbines stand to make $12,000-$25,000 per year, but it takes years to return the land to agricultural condition after the excavation and construction work to put up the towers.

Some landowners who signed leases, faced with their neighbours’ concerted resistance, and having learned about hazards of turbines, are now trying to get out of the leases, says Ingrid Willemsen, a board member of the lobby group. People who were victims of “deceptive sales tactics” often signed those leases, Watson told VICE. The salespeople would tell a farm family they might as well sign since their neighbour had already, when it turned out the neighbour hadn’t signed at all, he claimed. Someone backing out of a lease found the company had a line on it also, Cornelis added. “Are they borrowing money against other peoples’ properties?”

The sense of common threat has brought many locals together to an extent “never seen before,” said Keith Watson. “It’s amazing to see the passion of the community,” shown at public meetings called by his group, and at local and county council meetings. The group has not only persuaded their council to take the steps that provoked Suncor into the legal attack, but it has also provoked citizens into donating money, on top of their tax bill, to fund the legal defence, which could cost as much as $250,000, said Mayor Lonny Napper last year. With only 24 landowners to benefit from hosting the turbines, and an organized and vocal opposition group, Napper said the town has to support the majority who want him to fight.

There are also worries about wildlife. Southwestern Ontario is on the migration route for thousands of tundra swans that pass through the area twice yearly. “Suncor says the swans don’t land here,” he said, offering this reporter a photo he says shows the large white birds in his fields. 

Cornelis in Tim Horton's.

Nothing lasts forever, and the dying days of wind turbines are a worry in Plympton-Wyoming. One of the by-laws being challenged by Suncor demands a $200,000 deposit or credit note to pay the bills when the towers reach the end of their days. Even that may not be enough, as Watson and Cornelis claim to have read a report that it may cost up to $1 million to remove one.

The opponents’ determination will be on display at the Sarnia courthouse tomorrow, as they plan to be out in force to protest before the hearing. Among them will likely be Lisann Cornelis, Ron’s wife and mother to Adam, 9, who attends school just up the country road from their home and farm. At least one turbine will be in a field to the back of the school, worrying Adam’s parents, who feel more evidence is turning up to support the contention some people can be seriously affected by infrasound made by the turning of the turbine blades at a frequency too low to be heard consciously by humans (though that’s often disputed).

Lisann has another worry; the value of the home the Cornelis’ have almost completed renovating. “We’re looking at a 30 percent drop in value, and what if we have to move because our health is affected by the turbines,” she wondered. “I want the city people to think about this too,” she stressed. “Electricity prices are going up for everybody,” because of the preferential rates Ontario will pay to wind energy developers for the power they generate, she said

Last minute preparations are underway for tomorrow’s protest. While Suncor may try to avoid making waves before then, the company’s opponents have no such reluctance. They’re hoping, no matter how quiet they are in that courtroom, the judge will see them and understand how much is riding on the decision that will be made there.

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