A coalition of eight conservation organizations has called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to make changes at a wind energy facility in Western Maryland to reduce bird and bat mortality. According to recent data, the 28-turbine Criterion Wind Project, located near Oakland, Maryland, about 175 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., now ranks as the deadliest to birds in the United States on a per-turbine basis.
The environmental groups calling for action are Save Western Maryland, American Bird Conservancy, Friends of Blackwater, Allegheny Highlands Alliance, Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, Laurel Mountain Preservation Association, Allegheny Front Alliance, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
The request comes in response to a FWS call for comment on three documents concerning the project, published in the Federal Register: a draft Environmental Assessment, which assesses the existing and potential environmental impact of the project; an application for an Incidental Take Permit, which is required under the Endangered Species Act when activities will likely result in the killing or disturbance of a threatened or endangered species - in this case the endangered Indiana bat; and a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan, which must be completed before a take permit is issued.
"I cannot imagine that the state of Maryland is proud of the fact that the first commercial wind power project in the state - a short drive from our nation's capital - is the most deadly for birds in the entire country. This is a terrible precedent for the state; something their wildlife leaders probably find to be very embarrassing and in need of corrective action by the Federal Government," said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.
"This project is a realization of a worst-case scenario. This is why Save Western Maryland sued over the project in 2010, because of fears that bat mortality could be very high. As things have turned out, bat and other wildlife mortality, especially for birds, is far worse than expected," said Eric Robison, Co-Founder of Save Western Maryland.
"Bats are getting a brutal one-two punch here. They are already suffering huge losses from white-nose syndrome, so if they continue to face high losses at the state's wind projects, the environmental consequences to the state could be significant. Bats eat massive numbers of insects that are agricultural pests, so when you lose the control they provide, you are left with a choice between two very negative alternatives: either suffer agricultural losses or use more insect-controlling poisons on crops," said Judy Rodd, Executive Director of Friends of Blackwater.
"The Habitat Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment for the Criterion Wind Project raise many red flags under various federal statutes, and notably fail to implement any significant measures aimed at reducing the substantial bird mortality observed at this project site constituting hundreds of Migratory Bird Treaty Act violations on an annual basis," said Bill Eubanks, an attorney at Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, which prepared the groups' comment letter requesting action.
In their letter to FWS, the groups say that "...while we applaud the Service and Criterion for taking certain steps in an effort to make this wind project more environmentally sustainable, we raise various concerns with respect to [the Service's] and Criterion's compliance with federal law, and request that the Service and company address these concerns before issuance of any [Incidental Take Permit]."
This will be the first time such a permit has been issued to a wind development in the continental United States (the Kaheawa Wind Project on Maui, Hawai‘i already has an Incidental Take Permit authorizing the take of an endangered bat and three threatened or endangered birds), and this precedence makes the problems related to the site and the environmental review conducted by FWS doubly significant.
The primary concerns identified by the groups are in relation to the violation of four federal environmental statutes, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA). The groups assert that:
1) The Habitat Conservation Plan is not based on the best available science, in violation of the ESA;
2) Preparation of an Environmental Assessment is inadequate, and a full, more comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement is warranted under NEPA;
3) The Service's Draft Environmental Assessment does not adequately analyze alternatives, in violation of NEPA;
4) Without appropriate authorization, birds killed at Criterion will be in violation the MBTA and BGEPA.
The turbines are located along the ridge of Backbone Mountain, extending northeast approximately nine miles from Allegheny Heights to just south of Wild Turkey Rock in an area commonly referred to locally as Eagle Rock. The ridgeline maintains an elevation of approximately 3,200 feet above sea level. There are at least eight operating or proposed wind power projects within 40 miles of the Criterion project, which has been in operation since December 2010.
In response to a lawsuit brought by Save Western Maryland and other interested parties, Criterion agreed to seek an Incidental Take Permit for Indiana bats to comply with the ESA. During its first full year of operation (2011), Criterion conducted daily monitoring for bat and bird mortality between April 5 and November 15. Although no Indiana bat deaths were confirmed, Criterion estimates that the project killed approximately 1,093 other bats (39.03 bats per turbine) and 448 birds (16.01 birds per turbine). This rate is described in the draft Environmental Assessment as the highest per-turbine bird mortality ever estimated at a studied wind project in the United States, and as the highest per-turbine bird mortality ever documented in North America.
Based on the 2011 data, Criterion estimates that if the project did not take steps to reduce the number of bats killed, it would result in between 13,238 and 26,477 bat deaths and approximately 8,960 bird fatalities during the expected 20-year operational life of the project. Each bird death is a distinct violation of the MBTA, a strict liability statute that prohibits the killing of birds even when the killing is unintentional.
In addition to migratory birds in general, Bald and Golden Eagles have been routinely seen on and in the vicinity of the project, and according to FWS, "it is expected that Bald and Golden Eagles would pass by as they use the ridgeline for migration."