Enviro groups sue to block Calif. turbine farm

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to block a wind farm in Southern California they claim would threaten endangered condors, protected eagles and other sensitive species.

The lawsuit filed late last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California claims the Bureau of Land Management ignored foreseeable impacts when it approved an access road, transmission line and communication line right of way that allowed construction of the 100-turbine North Sky River project on 12,700 acres of private lands.

The complaint by Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity says BLM looked solely at the impacts of the access road and power line, rather than the implications of the wind farm itself.

The agency’s determination that the project would have “no significant impact” on the environment and “no effect” on endangered species violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the lawsuit alleges.

“BLM shirked its responsibility to fully evaluate impacts to California condors and other rare species from the North Sky River project,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with CBD.

The groups said they met several times with the developer, NextEra Energy Resources LLC, asking that the project be redesigned to avoid known sensitive areas in the southern Sierra Nevadas, but to no avail.

The project is located next to the Pine Tree wind project, which has killed at least eight federally protected golden eagles in the past two years and an estimated 1,595 birds altogether per year, according to the groups. Pine Tree has one of the highest bird kills per megawatt of wind power in the nation, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s reasonable to estimate that the proposed [North Sky River] project would have avian fatality rates equal to or greater than those observed at the adjacent Pine Tree Wind Facility,” FWS said in 2011.

“NextEra had the opportunity to reconfigure the project to reduce the risk to endangered California condors and golden eagles,” said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders. “We’ve been left with no alternative, but to resort to legal action to prevent further harm to one of rarest animals in the country.”

The groups cite a California Department of Fish and Game conclusion that the “combination of highly suitable habitat features on site, the known historic condor occurrences in the area, and recent condor activity nearby lead the department to conclude that condors will utilize the project area in the near future and be at risk from turbine strikes.”

The groups are asking the court to block construction of the transmission line and road until the agency corrects deficiencies in its environmental review.

BLM does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit comes as the Obama administration continues to grapple with the need to balance new wind farms with federal mandates to protect endangered species, migratory birds and bald and golden eagles.

The agency last week proposed a rule that would allow companies to apply for 30-year permits to kill or disturb bald or golden eagles if adequate mitigation steps are taken and impacts cannot be avoided (Greenwire, April 16).

The agency is also under pressure to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to kill or harass any of hundreds of species of birds.

The legal uncertainty — and the potential that wind farms could be fined or temporarily shut down if they are found to violate the law — has given some investors pause.

Condors nearly became extinct in the early 1980s due to hunting, lead poisoning and loss of habitat.

In 1982, scientists placed the last 22 California condors in breeding programs. The population now stands at 350, but the birds are still threatened by hunters and lead poisoning from bullets left in carcasses.

A study published in January in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found that California condors face more danger from lead poisoning on the ground than they do from wind turbines in the air (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

In July 2008, California banned the use of lead bullets within the condors’ range, but biologists say the birds have continued to suffer from lead poisoning from shell casings.