It’s dispiriting when newly rival factions of the environmental movement clash over what has become a touchy subject in green circles. Worse when disagreements end up in the justice system.
Yet that’s exactly what played out this week in a Toronto appeals court.
In an issue the media have dubbed ‘turtles versus turbines,’ the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists (PECFN), a group often led publicly by outspoken grandmother and wildlife advocate Myrna Wood, found themselves in court this week defending a landmark decision from the Environmental Review Tribunal in July, 2013 which halted a renewable energy project at Ostrander Point near Kingston. The tribunal pointed to the unacceptable impact the development of a 22.5 megawatt wind farm would have on the provincially and federally threatened Blanding’s turtle as justification.
The fact that Wood and PECFN are still in court is a victory in its own right, mind you. Few imagined the tribunal, the members of whom are appointed by the provincial government, would overturn a wind project from developer Gilead Power because of concerns over wildlife impacts. Never mind the proposed wind farm was situated on a globally recognized Important Bird Area – it already had Ministry of Environment approval. It was a done deal. And besides – the tribunal had never rejected a renewable energy approval (REA) for environmental or human health reasons before. Ever.
Turtle power prevails
Yet while the impact access roads would have on local Blanding’s turtle populations was only one of many arguments PECFN and its lawyer Eric Gillespie made to reverse the REA permit, it was the only aspect of their case the tribunal found persuasive enough to uphold. Gilead’s permit was revoked, and naturalists and anti-wind activists across Ontario celebrated.
“We won,” Wood told a gathering of PECFN supporters in October. “We knew we could win. We knew that if anyone took an objective look at the sensitive nature on our south shore they would not allow this kind of development to happen here.” Gillespie, addressing the same jubilant crowd, said “You have shown you can change what seemed inevitable. No doubt in my mind there would be turbines on Ostrander Point right now if not for you.”
However, the proponent and the Ministry of the Environment appealed, as many expected them to, with Gilead lawyers Doug Hamilton and Chris Wayland arguing the tribunal overstepped its bounds in revoking the wind company’s permit. Moreover, they felt that in determining what the tribunal felt would be best for Blanding’s turtles, they assumed a task best left to Ministry of Natural Resources staff.
Green vs. green
But the tribunal hearings and subsequent appeals court trial trap many environmentalists in an awkward position.
Truth be told, the notion of a relentless villain stopping at nothing to desecrate Ostrander Point misses the mark because the player cast as the bad-guy here isn’t the typical fiend haunting most nature-lover’s nightmares: nuclear power developers, forest clear-cutters or mountaintop-removal coal miners – the traditional coterie of those paving over paradise to put up parking lots.
It’s an alternative energy company. While that name may be cursed in many parts of rural Ontario where opposition to wind farms in unwilling host municipalities continues to haunt divided and bruised communities, proponents of wind turbines – those beacons on the hill for greens and sustainable energy types – are not a traditional bogeyman.
Gilead is seeking to help replace hundreds of megawatts of power coming offline with the closure of Ontario’s remaining coal plants while attempting to tap into a growing market for wind power as Ontario prepares to bring over 3,000 megawatts of power onto the grid by the end of 2014. And as a private power company, yes, they’re looking to turn a profit, too. This, in itself, is not a bad thing.
Yet wind power has become the place where green neighbours turn on one another, unable to reconcile the harm many feel turbines are causing to human health, rural communities and the environment with what many see as an important clean energy alternative to nuclear power or natural gas plants.
Ostrander Point is admittedly an imperfect example of this, as even the most ardent wind boosters among the province’s eco-minded residents may question the rationale of placing nine wind turbines in a region designated an Important Bird Area globally.
But can you support wind power and still consider yourself an environmentalist? Can you consider yourself an environmentalist and protest wind developments approved by the MOE? Before the Ostrander Point trial these questions would have struck me as silly, but now I’m not sure they are.
Some are lining up to take a stand one way or another, but this is counter-productive. The challenge is for Ontarians to better appreciate the complexities of balancing environmental needs with those of communities, companies, governments and a complex energy system. Surely there’s enough room in the big green tent of Ontario’s environmental movement to accommodate those who feel, as I do, that properly cited wind turbines can balance the needs of naturalists, environmentalists, rural residents and wind company executives.
I hope so. It can be hard enough living an environmentally conscionable life in Ontario without the occasional trip to family court.
* A previous version of this article referred to 40 turbines being located at Ostrander Point as part of Gilead’s project there; the correct number of turbines is nine. Apologies for the confusion, and thanks to a reader for pointing our the error. *