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Duke Accepts Wind Industry's First Bird Death Fine

Duke Energy Renewables and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have reached a settlement on charges levied under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) for 14 golden eagle mortalities within the past three years at its Top of the World and Campbell Hill wind farms near Casper, Wyoming. It's the wind industry's first such penalty for a topic that's become an increasing point of debate.

Under the agreement, Duke will pay $1 million in federal fines and restitution, spread among the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and The Conservation Fund. Duke also has pledged to take some "proactive steps" to help mitigate future incidents: use new radar and field biologists to detect eagles in the area, and curtail the turbines during busy eagle activity; remove rock and debris that attract eagles' prey; institute training programs for staff and develop a reporting system to track avian population on the sites. The company also pledges to work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on plans for migratory bird compliance and eagle conservation.

The issue of wind farm bird deaths -- and the lack of any fines being levied for allegedly the same violations as other industries such as fossil fuels -- got headlines this fall thanks to reports by the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.

It's not an easy balance between wind energy and environmental advocates. Wind industry group AWEA points out that this agreement "will help advance the knowledge of wind wildlife interactions to further reduce the industry's relatively small impacts." Both wind and environmental camps have worked hard to find common cause against less clean energy sources and the growing specter of climate change -- ultimately a carbon tax would be an ideal middle ground. Earlier this summer the National Wildlife Federation (NFW) called for more renewable energy options to fend off climate change, but with specific safeguards to protect birds. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), acknowledging its "pro-wind and pro-alternative energy" stance, applauded the ruling as a judgment that project siting needs to be more careful about its avian impacts. "All wind projects will kill some birds," stated Michael Hutchins, coordinator of the group's National Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. "It is sadly unavoidable, but some areas are worse than others, and we can predict where many of these will be."

Part of the debate is a matter of weighing what's harmful to the environment in an overall context. A 2009 study from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) emphasized how non-renewable electricity generation sources, and most especially coal, are much more harmful to wildlife than renewable energy options. Widely ranging estimates of annual avian deaths by wind turbines are frequently held up for comparison (and criticism) against similar or larger numbers attributable to power lines, high-rise buildings, and even cats.

In fact the D.O.J has specifically prosecuted other cases under the same MBTA law involving power lines, fossil-fuel reserve pits and wastewater storage facilities. The Union of Concerned Scientists' Elliott Negin offers a lengthy analysis, noting that decrying a lack of penalties against the wind industry ignores the industry's youth vs. decades of fossil fuel operations under scrutiny far longer. Another aspect to these comparisons is that it's fairly straightforward to solve a mitigation concern for an oil operation's waste pits by putting a net over it (or neglecting to). Once a building or a turbine is up and operating, there's no similarly easy fix -- he notes that "prosecution is a last resort" especially for a resource-strapped FWS.

To its defense, Duke points out these two Wyoming wind farms were put in between 2007-2009, before much was known about eagle impacts at wind farms and prior to the USFWS' own wind energy guidelines put in place in 2012. The Altamont Pass wind farm in California, one of the industry's earliest projects, similarly has become lightning rod for debate about impacts to birds. The logical carry-through is that the industry is becoming more knowledgeable about where it sites and develops wind farms and thus is becoming more successful in addressing environmental impacts and mitigation. In its statement, though, the ABC also warned that "flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread," accusing the wind industry of continuing to plan and develop projects against advice from biologists, "pay[ing] lip service to bird protection laws and then largely do[ing] what they want."

Lead image: Judge gavel and one hundred dollars, via Shutterstock

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