By Miriam Raftery
February 21, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – Environmental groups are reacting with shock and outrage to a U.S. Department of Interior rule change that would allow private wind energy corporations to apply for unprecedented 30-year permits to kill our nation’s national symbol, the Bald Eagle, as well as Golden Eagles.
“Outrageous,” Terry Weiner with the Desert Protective Council in San Diego said of the proposal. The DPC has joined a call mounted by the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy asking that further consideration of the revise rule be suspended until Sally Jewel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior Department ,has an opportunity to fully review the proposal and evaluate its long term impacts.
“The public places a high value on both Bald and Golden Eagles, two species that have inspired awe, pride and patriotism in America’s citizens for generations,” wrote Darin Schroeder, ABC’s Vice President of Conservation Advocacy.
The Altamont wind farm in Northern California alone has killed thousands of eagles. Many other wind projects have also killed eagles, which often die a slow and painful death after losing wings or suffering fatal wounds.
In San Diego, the eagle population has declined 50% in recent years yet several new wind energy projects are proposed in eagle habitat, including McCain Valley, a formerly federally protected area on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. There are only about 46 nesting pairs of Golden Eagles left in San Diego County and a handful of Bal Eagle pairs.
Yet Dave Bittner with the Wildlife Research Institute, which published a report lamenting the eagle decline, is also on the payroll of the wind industry to study the eagle areas in the path of local wind farms--studies with findings enabling wind turbines to be built. Curiously, his report on eagle declines blames the problem mainly on new hiking trails naer nests and fails to mention wind projects as posing any threat at all to local eagle populations.
Schroeder called the new, weaker rule drafted at the request of the wind industry a curious reversal of a U.S. Fish and Wildfife Service decision made in 2009. Schroeder charges that the rul was drafted following invitation-only meetings without consultation from stakeholders such as Indian tribes, conservation and scientific groups, or other industries.
Wind developers are already allowed to apply to FWS for a permit to unintentionally kill limited numbers of eagles if they agree to some form of mitigation, but such permits are limited to five years to assess impacts. The new rule not only would extend that to 30 years, but as Schroeder notes, “By eliminating the renewal process, FWS also eliminates public oversight.”
Weiner confirmed that meetings between wind industry executives, federal agencies and some conservation groups took place but “they have not been open to the public.” The DPC received notes from one of the meetings: http://dpcinc.org//images/uploads/EagleMtgNotes_11-29-12.pdf
The local conservation group found those notes revealed several “troubling issues” and further, concludes that also the U.S. FWS has a mission to conserve, protect and enhance wildlife, plants and habitat for the beneft of the American people, “the purpose of the meeting, as stated by a senior official of the USFWS, was to enable wind energy projects to get permitted.”
Further, discussions did not even reference avoiding or minimizing eagle takes and further, that the meetings may have violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act which requires that federal advisory committees have balance membership and notice published in the Federal Registrar. The closed-door meeting gave industry input after a public comment period closed in April, a move the DPC calls “highly discriminatory.”
The take permit controversy arises amid revelations that the Merlin Avian Detection System touted by the wind industry as a means of reducing bird kills is ineffective at preventing eagle deaths. Pattern Energy claimed during its wooing of public official support for its Ocotillo Express Wind Facility that the system would enable turbines to be shut down if a large raptor such as an eagle approached. But a video published last week by ECM showed a large vulture flying through whirling blades last week at Ocotillo, indicating the system failed to detect the bird or shut down turbines.
That doesn’t surprise Diana Palmer, who investigated the same system used in Ocotillo also in operation at the NextErea North Sky River project. “It seems to me this system must not work or they wouldn’t have had a dead Golden Eagle at the No rth Sky River project this past January, “ she told ECM. She forwarded the product’s technical data sheet, which states the system detects bird movements in “near real time” and observed, “You would need actual real-time detection, in my opinion.”