Nearly eight years ago, a clean energy company hoping to build a wind farm atop a Botetourt County ridge hired a professional birdwatcher to find out if soaring eagles and towering turbines could coexist.
A field biologist with Western EcoSystems Technology repeatedly hiked to four vantage points on North Mountain, where she spent two days each month for the next year looking for American bald eagles and eastern golden eagles.
The count: three bald and eight golden eagles.
Based on the low numbers, a lack of breeding habitat and no obvious flight patterns in the area, Western determined there was little risk to eagles in a 2016 report submitted to Apex Clean Energy, one of multiple studies required for the company’s wind farm.
Today, Apex has yet to start construction, and questions are being raised anew about the dangers of eagles flying into the spinning blades of 643-foot-tall turbines.
“Apex’s claim that its turbines pose no risk to golden eagles is simply untrue,” the American Bird Conservancy wrote in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The letter, which was also submitted to Apex as part of a recently completed public comment session, asks that DEQ require additional studies and other steps before allowing the project to move forward.
“Virginia has the opportunity to set a precedent here and do this right,” said Shawn Graff of the conservancy, noting that Apex’s Rocky Forge Wind would be the state’s first onshore wind farm.
DEQ is considering an amended permit for the project in a process that resulted from a lawsuit filed by opponents, some of whom live near the proposed wind farm site on isolated rural land north of Eagle Rock.
The issue over eagles is one of many complications for Rocky Forge, which finds itself in the crosswinds of two movements — one to protect wildlife and other natural resources and the other to protect the earth from climate change by producing more renewable energy.
Opponents point to a case in which at least 150 eagles were killed by wind turbines in eight states over the past decade. In April, a wind energy company pleaded guilty in Wyoming’s federal court to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and was ordered to pay more than $8 million in fines and restitution.
Most of the deaths occurred in western states, which have more turbines and eagles than are found on the East Coast.
No fatalities of golden eagles have been documented at East Coast Wind farms, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some bald eagles have been found dead at the facilities, the service said, but details were not available because the cases remain under investigation.
Apex contends that the field surveys that found a low risk to eagles on North Mountain, conducted in 2014 and 2015 by Western EcoSystems Technology, remain valid today. The study also documented 48 other avian species in the area, but found that most of them did not fly at the high altitudes the mountaintop turbines will occupy.
However, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources say that additional study is needed to better determine what dangers to eagles, if any, exist. It’s unclear how much power those agencies have in the current DEQ permitting process.
Irina Calos, a spokeswoman for DEQ, said the state agency does not have the authority to order Apex to conduct new field surveys as part of its reconsideration of a permit originally granted to the company in 2017.
But DEQ has ordered additional studies for other species of birds and turtles, and it’s “ridiculous” to think it can’t do the same for golden eagles, Molly Petty said.
Petty is part of a group of 13 Botetourt and Rockbridge county residents who claimed in a lawsuit that DEQ cut corners to benefit Apex in the regulatory process. While a judge re-opened a public comment period for the state permit earlier this year, he ruled against opponents on other matters, including a request to throw out the approval.
The group is appealing, and the dispute seems far from resolved.
Critics: Bird counts outdated
The eastern golden eagle is a relatively rare and elusive species with a range that includes its breeding grounds in northeastern Canada southward to its winter habitat in the Appalachian Mountains.
Its estimated population is about 5,000; there are more than 150,000 western golden eagles.
The large raptor with golden feathers on the back of its head and neck spends much of its time when not airborne in forested landscapes with steep slopes and cliffs, which provide updrafts for soaring.
Although less than a dozen of the birds were spotted on North Mountain by the field biologist hired by Apex, critics say the survey is too old — it documents sightings from between Dec. 18, 2014, and Dec. 14, 2015 — and too limited, with a total of about 190 hours of birdwatching over the year-long period.
A wind farm applicant should base its decisions on at least two years of preconstruction surveys, according to Tom Wittig, eagle coordinator for the North Atlantic-Appalachian region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The service agreed with Apex in 2015 that the one-year study was sufficient, the company has said in regulatory filings with DEQ.
“However, there can be a shelf life to the applicability of our advice,” Wittig wrote in an email last month to Apex’s environmental permitting manager. The American Bird Conservancy obtained the communication through an open-records request and included it in its written comments to DEQ.
At the time of the 2015 agreement between the service and Apex, the wind farm was expected to be in operation by 2017, Wittig noted. Difficulties in finding a buyer for the electricity to be generated by the turbines delayed the project, and Apex later applied for an amended permit that would allow the turbines to be taller than 550 feet as originally allowed. A modified permit was issued in 2020.
Current plans call for 13 turbines along the ridgeline. Each would be 643 feet tall, about twice the height of the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Roanoke.
In his email, Wittig wrote that he did not believe the current bird conservation strategy by Apex “provides enough evidence to support that the project is at a low risk of taking eagles.”
Renewed public comments
Apex declined to answer questions from The Roanoke Times about the eagle issue, citing ongoing litigation.
“Given that this group is currently suing us over this project, we prefer that our responses to their questions be in writing for all to see, including the environmental experts at DEQ,” Karlis Povisils, senior vice president of development, wrote in an email last month, following a public hearing in which a small group of opponents peppered company officials with questions about eagles and other concerns.
The June 15 hearing in Fincastle was held after Botetourt County Circuit Judge Joel Branscom ruled that DEQ made a procedural error when it considered Apex’s request for an amended permit that would allow taller turbines.
DEQ sought public comment only on new information that pertained to the increased height of the turbines. Other studies dealing with matters not affected by that change, such as documentation of the wind farm’s ability to connect to the electric grid, were not made available for comment in 2020.
Branscom ruled that all of the information should have been put up for discussion. He ordered a new public comment session, and directed DEQ to review the latest input and the company’s response. The agency must then determine whether its amended permit remains valid, Branscom wrote in a May 31 order explaining his decision in the lawsuit brought by Petty and other opponents.
A monthlong public comment period held by Apex ended June 25. The company is currently reviewing the information received and preparing written responses. That material will then be forwarded to DEQ for final action.
Of the 49 people who spoke or wrote, 23 expressed support for Rocky Forge, according to company spokesman Patrick Chilton.
DEQ plans to share the information with its sister agencies, including the state Department of Wildlife Resources, and provide feedback as needed to Apex before making a decision, Calos said. It has 90 days to act.
Safer solutions sought
Wind farms can be made safer for eagles in a variety of ways, none of them currently envisioned for Rocky Forge.
One idea is to use cameras to send alerts when the flying birds approach turbines, activating inflatable tubes mounted at their bases. The undulating plastic tubes, similar to those seen outside car dealerships and other businesses, scare the birds away.
Audio signals have also been suggested to deter eagles, although that would likely not be embraced by opponents who already complain that the turbines make too much noise.
In its public comments, the American Bird Conservancy suggested ways to improve avian surveys, including mounting GPS tags on migrating eagles to better track their movements.
The conservancy also urged DEQ to order Apex to stop the turbines from spinning at times of heavy eagle traffic. Such a mitigation strategy is already in place to protect bats. As a condition of its state permit, the company agreed to shut down the wind farm from dusk to dawn in the warmer months, when bats are most active.
Amy Martin, manager of wildlife information and environmental services for the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources, said the agency believes turbines can threaten eagles. The magnitude of the risk depends on a wind farm’s location, the type of turbines and its operation, she said.
DWR recently contracted a landscape model study to better determine what risks wind farms might pose to eagles in the Blue Ridge region, Martin said, but additional funding is not yet available to evaluate the Rocky Forge project.
While acknowledging some risks, supporters cite the dangers of a warming planet.
The Roanoke Group of the Sierra Club endorsed Rocky Forge in 2016, provided that environmental protections are followed and Apex abides by all state and federal regulations.
“Our greatest concern is rapid climate change,” said Dan Crawford, president of the group. “Wildlife is struggling as well, and will continue to perish along with humans if we don’t transition away from fossil fuels as fast as reasonably possible.”
At its maximum capacity — which is when the wind is blowing — Rocky Forge will generate enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes. Although that’s a relatively small output, advocates say other wind farms will follow in Virginia once this one is finally in operation.
Chilton, the Apex spokesman, said the company hopes to clear the remaining legal and regulatory hurdles in time to begin construction by no later than 2024.