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More controversy over birds -- Altamont Pass bird studies

The ongoing debate in California over mitigation measures intended to reduce bird deaths at Altamont Pass, where 5600 turbines cover some 79 square miles in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, continues to pick up steam. At the issue's heart are allegations concerning the accuracy of a 2004 California Energy Commission (CEC) study suggesting that 4000 of the turbines are obsolete and kill an estimated 880 to 1300 eagles, hawks and falcons each year.

Among the related compromises at the area as a result of the report is an elaborate 13-year plan, begun last year, where varying combinations of the turbines are shut down for months at a time in an effort to assess bird mortalities (Windpower Monthly, November 2005). The experiment is expected to cause a 10% decrease in revenues for a dozen different owners in an area that first started producing wind power in the early 1980s.

But the CEC study's accuracy has been challenged by West Inc, a Wyoming company that had been charged with overseeing a monitoring program related to assessing the results of the recent mitigation efforts at the Altamont site.

Repowering

Last month, in an effort to smooth the waters, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to hire two additional consulting firms, the University of California at Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group and Jones & Stokes, to join West in the monitoring duties as they relate to the shutdowns and repowering efforts that have become a part of the area's complicated legacy. Repowering many of the turbines with taller, slower moving machines is thought by many to be an expensive but necessary part of the solution in the effort to reduce bird mortalities.

The monitoring issue came to a head when West was accused of a conflict of interest. "The county originally decided to go with West and we raised a stink," says Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). "Where it stands now is that there'll be a team of consultants and we're OK with that."

Among CBD's complaints is that West is frequently hired as a paid consultant by the wind industry. CBD also alleges that West was paid by the industry to attack the 2004 CEC study. "It's really unfortunate that a company with a perfectly good reputation has been maligned," says Nancy Rader of the California Wind Energy Association. "Especially for having commented substantively on a report whose flaws have been documented in detail. For that they are being deemed corrupt and unqualified." West says: "There hasn't yet been any resolution to the issues and we would rather not comment now."

Neutral monitoring

Also at issue is the makeup of the county's Scientific Review Board (SRC), which was initially slated to convene back in November 2005 but has yet to be formed. The SRC is to include five scientists, one appointed by each of five groups: environmentalists, the wind industry, the county, the state and the federal government.

"The point of the review board was to avoid this kind of debate over conflict of interest," says Miller. "The board should have picked the monitoring company. But bureaucracy has been part of the delay and we wasted three months over the fact that the county appointed West in the first place."

Regardless of the debate over the number of bird deaths, all parties seem to realise that changes leading to resolution are needed. The good news, Miller says, is that there may be solutions. "From our point of view we hope that repowering will reduce bird kills. This is one of the few industries where there is no kind of fine or compensation for killing protected wildlife. But it's got to be someone neutral that monitors what's going on. We need to know what's working, and what isn't."

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