Bird groups ask FWS to probe proposed Ohio turbines in migration corridor

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 6, 2014

Two bird advocacy groups, fresh off a successful effort to block a wind turbine project at an Air National Guard base in northern Ohio, are raising concerns about an even larger proposed wind project at a nearby business park on the shores of Lake Erie that they say could harm bald eagles and other sensitive wildlife.
But the owners of the Lake Erie Business Park in Port Clinton where the wind turbines would be sited say they have not finalized plans to build as many as five additional turbines to one already installed there last year, and that development is not imminent.Still, the American Bird Conservancy and the Oak Harbor, Ohio-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory have complained to the Interior Department about the proposal, which they say is moving forward without federal or state analysis into the possible impacts to millions of migrating birds in the region, as well as to a nearby active bald eagle’s nest.The two conservation groups last week sent a letter to Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, outlining their concerns with the project and voluntary industry guidelines for siting implemented in 2012 by FWS, which they say are failing to keep wind farms out of sensitive areas.

The groups’ main concern is that the area in question is located in one of North America’s largest bird migration corridors, and they want Ashe to direct Fish and Wildlife to “look into this project in more detail, and take decisive action” as it relates to impacts on a host of sensitive avian species, including bald eagles and federally endangered Kirtland’s warblers and piping plovers, “both of which are known to frequent this area,” according to the letter.

The letter comes just weeks after the Ohio Air National Guard decided to scrap plans to build a wind turbine along the shores of Lake Erie at its Camp Perry facility near Port Clinton after ABC and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory threatened to sue the National Guard (E&ENews PM, Jan. 29).

“Now another problematic development is taking place on private land very close to the Camp Perry facility,” according to the groups’ letter to Ashe. “The Lake Erie Business Park is currently in the process of erecting six giant wind turbines in the same area.”

The groups say the project is moving forward without any formal environmental assessment (EA) “and with no consultation whatsoever with any state or federal natural resource agency,” the letter said.

The groups wrote that they “are concerned that this project represents an even [greater] threat to our public trust resources than the turbine that was planned for Camp Perry.”

“It is appalling to think that massive wind turbines can be constructed in these globally important bird areas without any wildlife review whatsoever,” said Kimberly Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

‘Much ado about nothing’

James McKinney, one of the owners of the business park, said in an interview that the groups’ letter to Ashe is misleading and that the critics are guilty of “ignorance” about the surrounding region and the numbers of birds that pass through the area.

McKinney said ABC and the bird observatory have taken an illustration on the possible wind turbine layout that’s on the Lake Erie Business Park’s website and mistaken it as a plan of development. While McKinney said they do plan to develop wind resources at the business park site, no plans have been finalized and they are not set to begin constructing turbines.

He would not name the developers working with the business park on the wind development. The conservation groups’ letter to Ashe said the developer is Sandusky, Ohio-based SUREnergy LLC.

McKinney acknowledged that they have not consulted with Fish and Wildlife or state regulators on the possible wind development but said they don’t have to. The wind development in the business park would be on private property and not subject to federal approval. What’s more, he said, wind projects that produce less than 5 megawatts of electricity do not require approval by the Ohio Power Siting Board.

Regardless, McKinney said the developers have and will continue to evaluate the proper siting of any wind turbines.

“We are not haphazardly looking to install turbines that would do harm to the environment,” he said. “This is much ado about nothing.”

McKinney also disputed the groups’ contention that the project would place sensitive birds and eagles at grave risk, arguing there are few birds that pass through the area due to two nearby shooting ranges that are used around the clock.

“You’ve got in some cases over 100 people shooting high-powered guns here at one time,” he said. “You really think the birds are flying through this area? I don’t think so. You’d be lucky to catch a squirrel in this area with all the gunfire that’s taking place.”

He noted that the business park last year installed a single 325-foot-tall turbine and that it was recently put into operation to power a building at the park. So far, he said, “there have been no problems” with birds being harmed by the spinning turbine blades.

McKinney also disputed a claim in the groups’ letter that when officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources attempted to contact McKinney about the proposed wind turbine project, “they were literally hung up on.”

He said that he hung up on “some knucklehead” from an environmental group who had called him to complain about the wind turbines, but that no one with the state or at Fish and Wildlife has called him about wind development at the business park.

“They’ve never tried to reach out to me,” he said. “If they do, I’d be happy to talk to them.”

Failing voluntary guidelines?

As for Fish and Wildlife, agency officials agree there’s little they can do to oversee the project because it would be located on private property.

The developers have not asked the service for guidance on siting wind turbines at the business park site, said Laury Parramore, an FWS spokeswoman in Arlington, Va.

Fish and Wildlife does have enforcement authority for wind projects on private property under the Endangered Species Act, Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and Migratory Bird Treaty Act — but those come into play only after birds have been harmed or killed, Parramore said.

“Ideally, we like to work with industry beforehand on siting. But we just have not been asked by the industry to be involved” at the business park site, she said.

ABC and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory say in their letter to Ashe that this illustrates the failure of voluntary federal guidelines for wind project siting.

ABC has been a sharp critic of the voluntary guidelines finalized in early 2012, arguing that mandatory regulations should be in place for siting and operating wind farms in ways that minimize impacts to birds, bats and wildlife habitat.

The voluntary guidelines encourage wind developers to consult with FWS as early as possible to allow biologists to assess a project’s potential impacts. They call for developers to work with the agency to analyze potential project effects on migratory birds, bats, eagles and other species from collisions with turbines (Greenwire, March 23, 2012).

“If this poorly-sited facility is being built in the absence of any EA, any permitting process, or any consultation with state or federal wildlife authorities, then it clearly represents another failure of the current voluntary permitting guidelines to protect our public trust resources,” the groups wrote. “Whether on public or private land, our native birds and bats are not owned by the for-profit wind industry, but are owned by the American people and held in trust for current and future generations.”

Michael Hutchins, coordinator of ABC’s Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign, said the groups support the development of wind and other renewable resources.

“However, these turbines are being built in one of the top five most important bird migration corridors in all of North America,” Hutchins said. “The area is also home to the highest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. It is likely not possible to dream up a worse scenario for birds, including threatened, endangered and other protected species