Michigan wind farm cost a family its health, home
By Emily Le Coz & Lucille Sherman
GateHouse Media | Dec. 13, 2017
Cary Shineldecker awoke in a panic.
His heart pounded as he raced through his house, flipping on light after light, in search of the intruder he would never find.
The middle-aged father of two knew his fear was irrational, but it hijacked every sense in his body. He finished checking his house and yard anyway, then returned to bed where he lay awake for hours, angry.
This had become an almost nightly ritual since Thanksgiving 2012, when 56 industrial turbines in the Lake Winds Energy Park started spinning outside Shineldecker’s home in rural Mason County, Michigan.
The closest loomed less than 1,200 feet from their door.
The towering structures generate low-frequency pulsations that people have described as a “feeling or presence,” something that is “felt rather than heard.”
It’s this eerie sensation that Shineldecker said stirred him from his slumber night after night. It’s the invisible intruder he felt was lurking in his home.
And like hundreds of other people living near wind turbines, he blamed these pulsations for not only his sleep disturbances but a cascade of other health problems also.
The wind industry denies turbines cause health problems. In interviews with GateHouse Media, wind company officials and representatives of American Wind Energy Association cited numerous studies supporting that stance – most recently a 2014 Health Canada study that found no direct link between turbine noise and reported illnesses.
But the same study also found wind turbines “highly annoy” about one in 10 people, especially those living closest to the structures and those exposed to turbine noises exceeding 35 decibels.
It said that annoyance is “statistically related” to reports of migraines, tinnitus, dizziness and high blood pressure.
These are the same symptoms that Shineldecker and his wife, Karen, recorded in a daily diary detailing problems they said didn’t exist before the Lake Winds Energy Park.
“This morning was horrible,” Karen wrote on April 4, 2013. “The turbine #20 was so loud and the thumping was unbelievable. My eyes and ears are pounding. My headaches are intense.”
Karen, a middle-school science teacher started grinding her teeth at night; she had to wear bite splints. Cary, an engineer, started losing concentration during the day; he was demoted at his job.
They took sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. They moved their bedroom into the basement to hide from the effects, but they still couldn’t escape.
“It’s like a dripping faucet in your bedroom, or someone tapping their fingernails next to you or calling your name and shaking your shoulder, night after night,” Cary said.
Michigan-based Consumers Energy owns Lake Winds. Company spokesman Terry DeDoes declined several requests to answers questions for this story, but he emailed a written statement that touted the company’s renewable energy projects and community engagement.
“We have found that local residents and businesses appreciate the jobs, cleaner energy, economic investment and income associated with Consumers Energy’s renewable energy projects,” DeDoes’ statement read, in part. “These investments in sustainable energy demonstrate our dedication to leaving our communities and environment better than we found them.”
The Shineldekers didn’t suffer alone. Consumers Energy received 128 complaints about its wind farm in the first year alone, according to Mason County records. Half reported sound problems and health issues. The others complained about shadow flicker, glare, signal interruption and the red aircraft warning lights that blink at night.
Mason County officials launched their own investigation into some of the problems and determined several of the turbines violated the county noise ordinance. Eleven months after the project started, the county ordered Consumers Energy come into compliance.
The company initially challenged the county’s ruling but eventually agreed to reduce the operating speeds of seven turbines, including the ones near the Shineldeckers.
That was in mid-2014, shortly before the Shineldeckers moved away.
From rumors to reality
The Shineldeckers had lived in their two-story farmhouse since 1995. They bought the property and its surrounding 16 acres when their two boys were young and could romp among the rolling hills and apple orchards.
But more than a home, it was an investment. The family poured countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars into the property. They renovated their old farmhouse, dug a fishing pond out back, added a greenhouse and built a workshop.
The Shineldeckers paid off their mortgage around the time their sons graduated high school, and they looked forward to relaxing and enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Then, in July 2010, they saw something in the local newspaper about a proposed wind farm.
Consumers Energy representatives knocked on their door soon afterward. They wanted the Shineldeckers to sign an agreement, Cary and Karen said. The agreement would let them place turbines closer to the couple’s property line than the county ordinance allowed.
The Shineldeckers declined. They didn’t oppose the wind farm, they said, but didn’t want it near their land, either.
At the time, the couple said they didn’t know where Consumers Energy planned to place its turbines. The company hadn’t publicly announced its exact locations, which is typical of most wind project developments that span the course of several years and rely on a patchwork of lease agreements.
But soon a neighbor found a list of locations from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency must approve construction of all structures over 200 feet tall, and Consumer Energy’s turbines would reach more than twice that.
The FAA list showed more than a dozen of the 56 proposed turbines within one mile of the Shineldeckers’ home. The closest would be less than a quarter mile from their bedroom window.
That’s when the couple decided to do their research. They not only read about industrial wind farms, but called people who lived among the turbines. The Shineldeckers wanted to know about their experiences. Some of what they heard concerned them.
People they spoke to complained about health problems and loud noises, Cary recalled. Several of them advised the Shineldeckers to protect themselves by seeking greater setbacks and stricter decibel limits.
A setback is the minimum distance between a turbine and a property line – or in some cases, an occupied dwelling. A decibel limit is the maximum sound a turbine can generate when measured from a property line – or in some cases, an occupied dwelling.
The county’s setback at the time was two times the height of the turbine – which in the case of Lake Winds Energy Park would be 952 feet – and its sound limit was 55 decibels.
Along with other concerned neighbors, the Shineldeckers formed a group called the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy. The alliance drafted an ordinance amendment in late 2010 and submitted it to the county.
The proposed amendment sought a setback of one-and-a-quarter mile, a 40-decibel sound limit, and a complete ban on shadow flicker – a strobe-like effect created when the sun passes behind spinning turbine blades. The county took it into consideration but didn’t adopt it.
Meanwhile, the Shineldeckers hired acoustician Robert Rand to study the proposed wind development in relation to their house. Rand returned his findings in June 2011 with a warning.
“I wish I had better news for you,” Cary recalled Rand telling him.“You and your family will be impacted significantly from the turbines. In fact, you’ll likely have trouble finding a quiet place to rest in your home.”
Less than a month later, the county approved a land-use permit to Consumers Energy that maintained the existing setbacks and allowed 10 hours annually of shadow flicker per property.
It lowered the decibel limit to 45 – a small victory for the citizens’ group.
The chairman of planning commission at the time – Ralph Lundberg – had a contract with Consumers Energy to host several turbines on his property. Lundberg did not vote on the permit.
Loss of friends, reputation
The Shineldecker’s battle against the project came at a cost.
Lifelong friends who stood to gain financially from the wind farm stopped speaking to them, they said. Many members of their church also signed lease agreements, and the Shineldeckers said they soon felt unwelcome there. They stopped attending.
Then one night someone on snowmobiles raced through their yard, grazing by the outdoor dog kennel. The next morning, two of the family’s beagles were sick. An emergency vet visit revealed a lethal dose of rat poison. One of the dogs died from it, veterinarian Leslie Paxton confirmed.
Although they can’t prove it, the Shineldeckers believe the snowmobilers intentionally poisoned their pets in retaliation for the family’s outspoken opposition to the wind farm.
“What cowardly person picks on an innocent animal to make a point because you’re mad because I don’t agree with you?” Karen said, wiping away tears. “You’re killing lives over, what, $7,000 a turbine?”
Landowners received a minimum $7,200 annually to host a wind turbine, according to a Consumers Energy document. The company also offered money to residents living near turbines but who didn’t host one.
The Shineldeckers said they were offered a similar deal but refused it.
Despite the controversy, the couple continued to speak out – especially after Lake Winds began operations. Cary in particular started sharing the family’s experience with other communities. He traveled, talked about his health issues and recommended tighter regulations.
He soon hit the radar of wind developers elsewhere. And he faced their criticism, too.
In December 2016, a wind company executive singled him out at a meeting several states away.
Mike Blazer of Chicago-based Invenergy claimed to know Shineldecker’s medical history. He told a crowd in Clear Lake, South Dakota, that Shineldecker’s health woes stemmed from alcohol use, obstructive sleep apnea and an irregular heartbeat – not wind turbines.
Blazer shared the alleged information at a December 2016 city meeting about his company’s proposed wind farm. He did it to quell fears about wind turbines and to provide “an example of the impact of the type of misinformation that is spread by wind opponents,” Blazer said in an email.
Shineldecker said he was stunned to learn about the incident from an attorney who attended the meeting. He said he has neither sleep apnea nor alcohol problems and never received a diagnosis for those problems.
He said he did drink alcohol in order to fall asleep many nights during the two years he lived with the turbines.
“All I ever had to go on was my integrity and honesty and work ethic,” Shineldecker said, “and then to be belittled and treated like some whack-job psycho liar is kind of unbelievable.”
Cary and Karen Shineldecker said they knew immediately when Lake Wind Energy Park started operations.
They could hear it at first – loud whistling and whooshing noises coming from the nearest turbines. It was Thanksgiving, 2012, and they said they couldn’t believe how noticeable it was.
Then they could feel it – thumping vibrations that resonated through the walls of their home like bass-heavy music from a distant, passing car.
At first, the Shineldeckers said they were annoyed. Then they developed headaches, ear aches and pressure behind their eyes. Soon they couldn’t sleep. None of this happened before the wind farm, they said.
The couple described it as Chinese water torture – bearable in the moment but insufferable over time.
“You go months and months and months without sleep, and pretty soon, you’re not even the person you recognize,” Cary said. “I literally broke down and cried in front of people, and I’m not proud to say that.”
Cary got so distracted and exhausted that he started making mistakes at work. He couldn’t remember simple things, like his email password. After a few months of this, he said he got demoted.
Karen was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and a bite splint after her dentist found that four of her teeth were loose from grinding them at night.
One day when they both had excruciating headaches, they said they set a bowl of water in the window and watched it ripple whenever the blades on the nearest turbine passed the tower.
“It’s no wonder our eyes, which are like little water balloons, and brain, which is floating around in water, when the pressure changes and you look at the water rippling in the bowl,” Cary said, “that’s what it’s doing to your brain and your chest and your eyes, that nonstop pulsation of energy.”
The couple said the effects were even worse inside the greenhouse. The thin walls amplified the effects of the turbines and made it sound like a helicopter was landing inside.
“Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp,” Karen said. “You know how it sounds when someone in a car rolls down one window but the other ones are rolled up? It’s like that.”
Karen stopped going in the greenhouse and eventually quit gardening altogether. The couple also stopped spending time in the main part of their house. They realized they felt better in the basement with its thick walls that blocked the sound and vibrations.
Soon they decided to sleep down there, too. They spent every night in the basement for two years.
Forced to leave
The Shineldeckers had listed their house for sale in 2011, after realizing they were losing the battle against Lake Winds. They had it appraised that year for $260,000.
But they got no offers and kept dropping the price over the next four years.
In early 2015, the family accepted an offer on the house for $139,000 and sold the surrounding acreage separately for $40,000 – a total 30 percent loss on the original asking price.
“It was emotionally devastating to be forced out of your house,” Cary said. “We moved to that house when our oldest son was 5 years old. It was a really nice place to live and raise a family.”
The house belongs to a Jackie and Jonathan Visscher now. The Visschers said they barely notice the turbines. They don’t cause them headaches or any other problem, as far as they can tell.
“I rarely hear the turbines,” Jackie Visscher said while standing in her driveway. “But we have eight kids, so we’re up at night anyway.”
But the turbines hum quieter now than when the Shineldeckers lived there. After the county found Consumers Energy violated its noise regulations, the company has been operating seven of its turbines at reduced speeds. It started in mid-2014 – a few months before Cary and Karen moved out.
“Before the court order to keep them under a certain decibel, you couldn’t even sit out there and have a conversation,” said Toni Britton, sipping coffee on her porch across the street from the Visschers.
She and her husband, Ed, said they also suffered headaches and sleepless nights when the equipment operated at full capacity. It’s better now, they said, but they fear the court order will expire and leave them helpless.
“I thought about cutting them down with a chainsaw,” Ed said. “They’re the worst thing you could put in a residential neighborhood.”
Other neighbors also complained about the turbines. Several of them joined a lawsuit against Consumers Energy in 2013. Along with the Shineldeckers, they claimed the wind farm affected their health and dropped their property values.
The company denied the claims in court records, but it ultimately settled with the residents less than two years later for an undisclosed sum.
Cary and Karen said the settlement provided some closure but will never replace what they lost.
The Shineldeckers moved four miles away from the project, in a log cabin on a small lake visited daily by bald eagles and Canada geese. They no longer see or hear the turbines, but the experience still haunts them.
“I’ve lost a lot of faith in human nature,” Cary said. “I used to trust people without reservation.”
In the five years since Lake Winds Energy Park went online, the Shineldeckers have tried to restore their sense of normalcy. Karen is gardening again. Cary was promoted at work. They spend evenings on the porch gazing at the unspoiled vista of their rural property.
Karen no longer wears a bite splint; she stopped grinding her teeth shortly after moving away from their farmhouse. The couple also tossed their sleeping pills; they say they no longer need them.
And, in a strange twist, Cary was appointed to the same governmental body that had ignored his earlier zoning recommendations. In September 2013, he was sworn in as the newest member of the Mason County Planning Commission. He also now serves on the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
The commission since has amended its zoning ordinance to require a greater setback for industrial turbines. Instead of a distance equal to twice the height of the structures, the commission doubled it to four times the height.
Cary smiled when he considered the irony.
“My story’s not unique in any way shape or form,” Cary said, “other than I fought and I got my ass kicked and I lived to tell about it.”