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Eastern Oregon residents wary of wind farm projects

LA GRANDE — If there's anything that worries Linda Bond, it's the prospect of living in the shadow of hundreds of wind turbines with their noise and blinking lights.

"I am really concerned about their proximity to the schools," said Bond, a 59-year-old retired Oregon City teacher who now lives in Union, where a huge wind-energy project is proposed. She attended one of several Oregon Public Health "listening sessions" this week in Eastern Oregon.

"There will be some people adversely affected," she said.

Bond isn't alone in her nervousness. For scores of residents, the luster of renewable green energy has all but disappeared behind an unwelcome march of gigantic, rolled-steel wind towers.

Oregon is a national leader in wind energy production, ranking fourth behind Texas, Iowa and California — up from sixth place last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C. The state boasts more than 1,200 wind turbines on more than a dozen wind farms across Central and Eastern Oregon, and it produces 2,095 megawatts of wind capacity, enough to power 500,000 houses.

At listening sessions in La Grande and Pendleton, the conversation often turned on fears that wind-energy projects degrade human health, property values, scenic views and wildlife habitat.

Bond's adopted town of Union, with its frontier-era red-brick storefronts and gracious Queen Anne and Victorian homes, could face a thicket of 182 wind turbines if the 300-megawatt Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project gets a go-ahead.

Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy has proposed the $600 million project in a semicircle on 47,000 acres above and around Union, with towers as close as 11/2; miles to schools, homes and businesses.

Many of the more than 60 people attending the La Grande meeting admitted they're unsure what to expect, but they fear the blinking lights on the towers and the low-frequency roar and whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of giant turbine blades would become an unhealthy and permanent fixture in their lives.

"You can't imagine the stress it's caused," said Dennis Wilkinson of Cove, organizer of Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley, a political action group that opposes the Antelope Ridge project. He attended the Pendleton listening session, which drew about 30 people.

Due largely to his group's efforts, Union County voters formally opposed construction of Antelope Ridge by a slim 52 percent to 48 percent vote in Tuesday's general election.

The Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council is evaluating Antelope Ridge, and Wilkinson said his group's goal is to stall the council's approval until alternative energy tax incentives dry up and the project goes away. It would power about 72,500 homes.

While more than a dozen Oregon wind projects are in the planning stage, "there is a serious curtailment in building wind projects," said John Audley of Renewable Northwest Energy, a Portland-based coalition of companies and groups that promote renewable energy.

"The state incentives have gone away, the markets of renewable energy are full and the price of fossil fuel is cheap," he said at the Pendleton meeting.

Nationally, the third quarter of 2010 was the slowest since 2007 for the U.S. wind-energy industry — down 72 percent since last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Near Boardman, opposition to the 2-year-old Willow Creek Wind Energy Project has proved bitter. Nearby homeowners, at the meeting in Pendleton, said the towers' noise and proximity to their homes disrupts their lives. One person, Dan Williams, complained of panic attacks, lost sleep and fractures to family relationships caused by stress.

The study of the effects of wind turbines on human health is an emerging and much-debated science whose leader arguably is Dr. Nina Pierpont of Malone, N.Y. Pierpont coined the phrase "wind-turbine syndrome."

She says low-frequency noise and vibrations from wind turbines can affect the inner ear, triggering a variety of symptoms ranging from headaches and difficulty sleeping to learning and mood disorders, irritability and panic attacks.