After a fierce, two-year fight against a proposed $179 million wind farm near Red Wing, Minn., local opponents have only one trump card left -- the bald eagle.
Just before the state government shutdown on July 1, the 12,000-acre project cleared a major hurdle when the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted to move it forward. But in recent months, a citizens group that has opposed the project discovered that the 50 turbines will be built smack in the middle of prime nesting territory for that beloved American symbol of freedom.
Federal wildlife officials say that the developer could face civil or even criminal action under federal laws if a bald eagle or an even more rare golden eagle is felled by one of the massive blades.
"It comes down to whether they want to take on the risk or not," said Richard Davis, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has monitored the project for two years. "I do think there is a higher likelihood of a strike in that area than any other wind project I've looked at in the state."
Chuck Burdick, project director for the developer, AWA Goodhue Wind, said the company has been diligent in responding to the concerns raised by both federal and state wildlife officials. It's done everything possible, he said, to site turbines where they will cause the least harm to flying wildlife, from long-eared bats to loggerhead shrikes to eagles. But all projects entail risks, he said, and the company plans to start construction this fall.
"I don't know that a wind farm has ever been built that didn't result in some bird or bat mortality," he said.
The conflict between these two opposing environmental goals -- clean energy and protecting wildlife -- is occurring increasingly as wind farms sprout across the nation. There is a growing realization that the massive towers with blades that travel hundreds of miles per hour are killing millions of wandering birds and bats.
The concerns are having an effect. In April, a wind development in North Dakota halted when Xcel Energy, which had agreed to buy the electricity, abruptly pulled out of the deal because of risks to two endangered birds -- the piping plover and the whooping crane. The developer, EnXco, still doesn't have a buyer for the electricity.
The federal Department of the Interior recently proposed new voluntary wildlife protection guidelines for wind projects, but they were denounced by environmental and bird-loving organizations as grossly inadequate. At minimum, such rules should be mandatory, the American Bird Conservancy said.
In Minnesota, the drive for wind energy comes in part from a state law that requires utilities to derive 25 percent of their energy from wind by 2020. Now, the pressure to build has been intensified by industry fears that the federal Production Tax Credit, which greatly reduces the costs of the projects, will expire this year.
Wind energy proponents argue that the risks are worth it. After all, they say, mountain-top coal mining and air pollution from fossil fuels are far more destructive to wildlife than wind turbines. But critics say that doesn't justify the harm, noting that 55 to 94 golden eagles die every year at Altamont Pass in California - one of the oldest and, many say, most poorly designed wind farms in the country.
The eagle problem in Goodhue County surfaced only this past winter, thanks largely to the Coalition for Sensible Siting, a citizens group that opposed the wind project from the beginning. Mostly, they don't want the turbines close to their homes because of concerns about the effect of stray electrical voltage and the annoying strobe-like shadows cast by the moving blades.
But when the company issued the results of a wildlife survey it conducted on the site last summer, opponents realized they might have more leverage. Company biologists said they found three eagles' nests within a two-mile radius of the project, but concluded that the birds were not at risk because they didn't hunt near the turbine sites.
Mary Hartman, a member the citizens group, was skeptical. Only three nests? "This place is loaded," she said. Members of her group went out and found eight nests.
Ron Peterson, the company biologist, disputed that number. He said that only two additional nests were documented, and that they were there because the eagles were feeding on "improperly disposed" livestock carcasses. If farmers stop leaving carcasses out, he said, the eagles would move on.
Davis, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said there are at least four or five nests in all, and he criticized the company's initial survey as "not extremely substantial."
But at this point, all Davis and state wildlife officials can do is make recommendations on how to best site the turbines to protect the birds. The ultimate decision on the future of the wind farm is up to the PUC. The citizens groups and Goodhue County, which also opposes it, can ask the commission to reconsider its approval, but a major change is unlikely, participants said.
Still, the commissioners' concern about vulnerable species was evident. The permit will be one of the first in Minnesota to require a bird- and bat-protection plan, which the company must develop with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
But there is no certainty such a plan will succeed in protecting eagles or other endangered species.
Burdick said the company's biologists are tracking the flight paths and hunting territories of eagles and other vulnerable species at the site. He said he expects the company will also "promote wildlife in the general area" and work with the state and federal agencies on turbine locations.
"We are doing everything possible to avoid the most sensitive and intensely used areas for wildlife," Burdick said.
The federal government can step in only after the project is up and running, if something happens to a protected bird, Davis said. The options in that case might range from shutting down problem turbines, for example, to legal action.
If eagles start dying, he said, the federal government is less likely to forgive an operator that knew the risks earlier.
But that's only if the deaths are discovered.
"If there are 50 birds hit, are they going to tell anyone?" he said. "We hope they would."
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