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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Do Wind Energy Projects harm the soil? Do pipelines?

On an appeal of a Renewable Energy Approval (REA) for a 49-turbine wind farm, the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) considered whether the project would cause harm to soils.  The appellants in the case raised issues including harm to farm animals due to electro-magnetic fields and harm to farming practices.  Lay evidence and expert evidence was called on the issue of harm to soils, including evidence relating to the effect of pipeline projects on farm land and production.

The appellants argued that the soils to be affected by the installation of the wind turbines were unique soils particularly suited to potato farming.  Those soils would be permanently affected by the project, which would result in serious and irreversible harm to land (while other poorer lands were available to accommodate the project). 

The project proponent argued the opposite, putting forward evidence that the soils in question were not the only soils in Ontario well-suited to potato production and that soil restoration would be possible following the project.  The proponent's expert witness, Dr. Gregory Wall, suggested that the soil modification required for a wind turbine is not as drastic as for a pipeline, and testified that farmers, and pipeline companies, have been successfully remediating compacted soil for many years.  He said that on a recent pipeline project, he "expects these lands to return to original crop production levels within ten years," and says, "it is my understanding that landowners affected by pipeline construction are often compensated on this basis."  Dr. Wall also testified that with "major changes" in mitigation techniques, lands affected by pipeline projects are now experiencing "full yields" approximately two-years post-construction.

While Dr. Wall was qualified by the ERT as an expert in "soil science"; it's not clear that he was qualified to provide any opinion on compensation for crop loss (and whether that compensation is adequate).  One might also question the large discrepancy in his evidence about the time it takes to return farm land to full production following a pipeline project. 

The ERT found the amount of land to be affected by the proposed wind project to be relatively small in size, so that a relatively small amount of soil would be disturbed.  The ERT then found that the "amount of soil to be disturbed in order to construct and operate the Project is consistent with the scale of disturbance for roads, farm buildings and other facilities required in the normal use of agricultural lands."  However, the ERT noted that in a different project, it could be that a relatively small disturbance could be considered serious.

The ERT also accepted that the mitigation measures, if applied as described by expert witnesses for the parties responding to the appeals, will be successful in restoring the soils to productive agricultural use and are appropriate to the scale of soil disturbance that will result from the project.  Therefore, the appellants failed to establish that the project would cause serious and irreversible harm to soils.

Read the decision at: Bovaird v. MOE.