WESTOVER - Twenty bald eagles a year could be killed by the spinning blades a company wants to build in Somerset County to harness the power of wind for cheap energy, federal wildlife officials say.
That's too much for Delmarva's eagle population to bear, said Sarah Nystrom, the Northeast region's bald and golden eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pioneer Green Energy must take measures to reduce the estimated number of yearly eagle "takes" to 15-17 before the agency will sign off on the project.
"We estimate a higher number generally than we think will actually happen," Nystrom said. "The absolute worst we want to do is make a mistake on the other side - that it's higher than the number of takes we estimated."
Pioneer has drawn up lease agreements with about 200 landowners to plant up to 50 turbines across 8,500 acres of farmland near Westover. But momentum slowed to a crawl in 2011 after officials with Naval Air Station Patuxent River said the 500-foot structures could mar the performance of their sensitive radar equipment.
Of the two winged obstacles - eagles and fighter jets - birds of prey carry more bureaucratic clout. Fish and Wildlife can withhold a permit, stopping the project in its tracks; the Department of Defense, while politically influential, technically has no formal say.
Further, the outcome of the eagle review could have ripple effects well beyond Delmarva, setting a precedent for wind energy projects along the Eastern Seaboard, environmental officials and wind-industry experts say.
"It does set a standard for what's required of a company to try to meet those issuance criteria," in part, because so few wind projects have popped up in bald eagle territory so far, Nystrom said.
That dearth of data, though, is at the heart of a key issue that has emerged in talks between Pioneer Energy and Fish and Wildlife: the number of eagle deaths it is forecast to generate.
Nystrom acknowledges her estimate is founded on shaky ground. Since bald eagle run-ins are so rare - only nine collisions with turbine blades have been recorded nationally - she based the 20 deaths on golden eagle data.
"We don't know if that means bald eagles can avoid turbines better than golden eagles can," Nystrom said. "We are learning as we go, and this project is no different."
Golden eagles are relatively common in the West, where turbines traditionally have been raised.
The wind industry's lobbying group calls Fish and Wildlife's bald eagle formula "overly conservative." The agency should use separate models for the two types of eagles because of differences in their foraging habits, habitats and other factors, said John Anderson, director of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association.
"It is our understanding that the FWS is currently conducting an independent peer-review of the model, and our expectation is the results, which will be publicly available, will note the flaws in it," he said in a statement.
In addition to being the official national emblem, the bald eagle has become a symbol of success for efforts to bring back species from the brink of extinction.
The 1970s ban on the pesticide DDT fueled a remarkable rebound from a few hundred nesting pairs of eagles to nearly 10,000 over the span of four decades. In 2007, Fish and Wildlife declared the eagle fully recovered, removing it from the list of threatened and endangered species.
The large birds didn't lose their federal protection, however. Instead, they reverted back under the umbrella of an earlier conservation law known as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Somerset County resident Tammy Truitt has a laundry list of concerns about the Pioneer Green proposal, ranging from the potential health impacts of low-frequency noise to the cost of producing the energy. Eagles are high on that list.
"There's going to be tons of birds killed here because we have tons of birds," she said.
The Eastern Shore's fish-rich waters and location near the Atlantic Flyway make it a favorite haunt of the bald eagle, birders say.
Adam Cohen, vice president and founder of Pioneer Green Energy, said his company searched all over Delmarva to find not only the best place to catch winds but also to avoid disturbing bald eagles. He tried to avoid placing it too close to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge or within 1,000 feet of any shoreline.
At the behest of Fish and Wildlife, he also reduced the amount of energy to be produced from 210 megawatts to 150. And he has agreed with Nystrom's recommendation to raise just 30 turbines initially to see how often eagle collisions occur.
"We've taken a huge hit on our economics to stay out of those windier areas, but it helps not only the bald eagles but other species of concern," Cohen said.
The project, undertaken by Pioneer subsidiary Great Bay Winds, isn't alone on the Lower Shore.
The city of Crisfield recently won a state grant to build a small turbine to help power its sewage plant. A third project by Delsea Energy appears to have stalled; the phone at the company's New Jersey headquarters was disconnected as of last week.
Meanwhile, state and local officials have been working for years to build a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City.
The Navy is expected to issue a proposed solution to its issues with the Westover project next month. If the two sides reach an agreement, the project would still need permission from several governmental bodies, including the Somerset County Commission and Fish and Wildlife.