PRATT – A Pratt County farmer has filed a suit in federal court seeking to prevent a new wind farm in Pratt County from starting up because of the risk he believes it poses to Whooping Cranes.
Edwin Petrowsky, a former member of the Pratt County Zoning Commission, filed the suit Nov. 23 seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against NextEra Energy Resources.
Petrowsky contends the Ninnescah Wind Farm, which consists of 121 wind generators in the southeast quadrant of the county, is in the flyway of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane, which is an endangered species. The wind farm is expected to go online next week.
At last count, there was only an estimated 329 wild Aransas-Wood cranes in North America.
Petrowsky charges that NextEra is aware of the danger the project is creating, yet has failed to obtain an “incidental taking permit” that would allow the incidental killing of some birds under the Endangered Species Act.
NextEra spokesperson Steve Stengel said that the company has worked with state and federal authorities “all throughout development of the project” and that the siting of the turbines “has taken into account migratory flyways.”
“Whooping Cranes generally fly higher than the heights of the turbines,” Stengel said. “But, in working with the agencies, we have agreed to ongoing bird monitoring at the site.”
According to an earlier story in the Pratt Tribune, the company has agreed to bird and bat monitoring during its first year of operation, “to track mortality rates.” The farm is also in an area with a high number of bat hibernation sites.
Parts of the wind farm, which will generate 200 megawatts of electricity that Westar Energy is under a 20-year contract to purchase, are within 35 to 40 miles of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms, both designated as critical habitat for the whooping crane. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, another designated habitat, is also nearby.
“Whooping Cranes have been recently documented to use the farmland in Pratt County for feeding while roosting at Critical Habitat areas,” Petrowsky states in the suit.
While he agrees the cranes fly higher than the turbines while in migratory flight, Petrowsky said his concern is with birds taking off and landing in the area for feeding. The tallest flying bird in North America, it takes long distances for the birds to reach their flying altitude.
“The flyway is across there, right through there,” he said. “It’s a main feeding area. They rest up there at the Bottoms and Quivira, and feed to regain their strength, and then take off to head south.”
The American Bird Conservancy lists the Ninnescah project as one of the 10 most dangerous wind projects in the nation for birds and one of the worst for potential mortality of endangered species.
“Building this facility will require the construction of a 66-mile-long powerline and numerous 135-foot-tall supporting towers that would traverse the Whooping Crane migratory corridor and connect this to other wind energy projects, Flat Ridge I and II (existing) and III (proposed),” the organization states on its website. “While the turbines themselves could pose a risk, collisions with power lines and towers are a leading cause of mortality for adult Whooping Cranes.”
The organization has written to the Federal Wildlife Service on the issue and is willing to file a “friend of the court” brief in connection with his suit, Petrowsky said, “but they do research, they don’t handle the rest of this stuff.”
“I did it to get some action started on it,” Petrowsky said of why he filed the suit pro-se. “Nobody else was going to take it on… It’s the right of a private citizen to do this.”
He is attempting to raise money to hire an attorney to assist in the case.
He has been raising the issue of the threat to cranes since British Petroleum first proposed the wind farm several years ago, Petrowsky said. That company eventually backed out of the project, selling its leases to NextEra.
While a member of the planning commission, he continued to press the issue, Petrowsky said, but then the Pratt County Commission did not reappoint him to the board after his term expired.
The planning board at one point did pass a requirement advising NextEra it must comply with federal wildlife laws, and the company filed a draft environmental impact statement. However, the planning board approved the $380 million-plus project going forward without further action on that plan, Petrowsky said, something he believes violates the Endangered Species Act.
“Technically, until they get all these permits they cannot put up the wind farm,” he said.
The planning board, incidentally, received an application in late October from NextEra for a second farm, covering about 40,000 acres, or twice the size of the recently completed project, according to a story in the Kiowa County Signal.
A retired engineer, Petrowsky said he was once opposed to zoning in the county, and he was also “anti-Endangered Species Act.” Then he recognized “when it gets big enough the individual can’t handle it, that’s what the government is for.”
“I was at Iuka, getting a system ready for winter,” the 66-year-old recalled of a day back in 1980. “At that time there were only 21 whooping cranes in the wild. I saw this flock of birds taking off. There were 18 whooping cranes went right over my head, just 20 to 25 feet high. That’s when I realized how fragile the whole thing is.”
“I have three grandkids,” he said. “I want them to be able to see those birds and enjoy it. I hunt geese and duck and pheasant, but I also take care of the game. I stock game to keep the hunting good. It is just, I owe it to my kids and grandkids to keep those things we love. Three-hundred and twenty is not very many birds.”