Groups sue to prevent birds ‘getting diced’ by wind turbines

Source: By Niina H. Farah, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2019

Two conservation groups are suing the federal government over concerns that a landmark Great Lakes wind project could hurt waterfowl and songbirds.

The American Bird Conservancy and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory filed a lawsuit Wednesday contending that the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately consider risks, such as bird collisions or species displacement, posed by the planned Icebreaker Wind project in Lake Erie.

Icebreaker Wind is slated to be the first project of its kind in the Great Lakes and the second U.S. commercial offshore wind development after Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm.

In their challenge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the conservation groups allege that DOE and the Army Corps fell short of their requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

“There is a lot of data that show that not only the nearshore area but also the central basin are incredibly important to bird populations,” said Joel Merriman, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Program.

“We’ve been shouting our concerns from the rooftops, but the project continues to move forward and is not adequately addressing the risk to birds,” he said.

Icebreaker Wind would include six 3.45-megawatt turbines about 8 miles north of Cleveland and is expected to be in operation by the end of 2022.

DOE awarded Icebreaker Wind a $40 million construction grant in May 2016 and played a leading role in evaluating the project.

The project is still awaiting permit approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board, which could make its decision as soon as next month, Merriman said.

Both waterfowl species and songbirds migrating in the fall and spring could be affected by the project, he said. The National Audubon Society lists Lake Erie’s central basin as an area that is important for conserving bird species.

One of the potentially vulnerable birds is the Kirtland’s warbler, a small songbird that federal officials recently downlisted from endangered to threatened.

“The last thing we want to see is a Kirtland getting diced in a wind turbine,” said Merriman.

Neither DOE nor the Army Corps comment on pending litigation.

‘More problems for wildlife’

Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo), a nonprofit collaborating on Icebreaker Wind with the Norwegian company Fred. Olsen Renewables AS, said in a statement that project developers had invested “significant resources” and partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine how birds use the project area.

LEEDCo added that the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and other green groups support the project and noted that an environmental assessment for the project found “no significant impact to birds or on the environment.”

“The clean energy that these turbines will generate is an important step toward reducing emissions and pollution, and combating climate change, which will provide great benefits to birds and other wildlife as well as all Ohioans,” LEEDCo said in its statement.

Merriman said the American Bird Conservancy supports wind energy, adding that his program had worked for the past decade to develop “bird smart” energy principles that protect species.

“The alternative is a bad one,” he said. “Climate change is going to be disastrous for wildlife, and that is just a fact.

“But while we are trying to combat climate change, we shouldn’t be creating more problems for wildlife in the process.”