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How will fine for wind turbines killing birds affect Nevada wind projects?

Commentary
by Thomas Mitchell
4th St 8

Posted 11/30/2013

One can’t help but wonder how a recent $1 million in fines and penalties levied against Duke Energy Renewables for killing migratory birds with its wind turbines in Wyoming will affect wind projects in Nevada.

In March, a golden eagle was found dead at the Spring Valley wind farm east of Ely, additionally the turbines there have killed a number of other birds and bats. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has taken no action yet against the wind farm’s owner Pattern Energy.

Duke Energy Renewables still has in the works an 87-turbine wind farm east of Searchlight. Might the prospects of additional million-dollar assessments at a facility near Lake Mohave, home to bald and golden eagles dampen the company’s ardor for the project? That would come on top of the fact the $12 billion wind production tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year and there has been no discussion of renewal. Also, Duke has yet to line up a buyer for the power the wind farm would produce and has said that the project will not go forward without such a buyer being lined up.

On Friday Duke pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Wyoming to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act — the  first ever criminal enforcement of the act for wind projects. In a press release, the Department of Justice stated:

“Under a plea agreement with the government, the company was sentenced to pay fines, restitution and community service totaling $1 million and was placed on probation for five years, during which it must implement an environmental compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company’s four commercial wind projects in the state.  The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.”

The company’s two Wyoming wind farms have killed 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows between 2009 and 2013.

A 2009 study by Fish and Wildlife estimated wind turbines kill 440,000 birds annually. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates nearly 70 bald and golden eagles have been killed by wind turbines in the past four years, and figure doesn’t include the 75 a year killed at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California.

“This case represents the first criminal conviction under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for unlawful avian takings at wind projects,” said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  “In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths. To its credit, once the projects came on line and began causing avian deaths, Duke took steps to minimize the hazard, and with this plea agreement has committed to an extensive compliance plan to minimize bird deaths at its Wyoming facilities and to devote resources to eagle preservation and rehabilitation efforts.”

In April, attorneys filed in U.S. District Court of Nevada a lawsuit (Searchlight suit) accusing former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of acting in “a manner that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law” when he granted permission for construction of an 87-turbine wind farm east of Searchlight on 19,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

The suit alleges the Final Environmental Impact Statement, on which Salazar based his approval, was written by consultants for Searchlight Wind Energy, which is owned by Duke Energy. The suit says the FEIS is a one-sided and an incomplete portrait of the project’s adverse environmental impacts.

Another Searchlight deterrent might be the potential for litigation with nearby landowners. Though the Interior Department found no negative impact on property values due to wind farms, a report this year by Nevada Policy Research Institute found studies by real estate appraisers that conclude properties within two to three miles of wind turbines had values decline up to nearly 60 percent — with the decreased value being “tantamount to an inverse condemnation, or regulatory taking of private property rights.”

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