United States

United States

Industry surprised at new lawsuit -- Altamont Pass bird kills

Most wind farms in the Altamont Pass are now being targeted in a renewed and expanded federal lawsuit over the numbers of raptors being killed in them. The lawsuit has been filed by California's Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) after it reviewed a draft plan of remedial measures put together late this summer by wind plant owners in the Altamont Pass. "The industry came and cobbled together a plan that provides the minimum of what they want to do," says CBD's Jeff Miller. "This plan shows they're not willing to do anything meaningful."

In August the CBD dropped its original lawsuit against FPL Group Inc, parent company of FPL Energy, the largest wind developer in the US, and NEG Micon, a Danish turbine manufacturer that is now part of Vestas. It had sued the two companies in January (Windpower Monthly, February 2004), but it withdrew the federal lawsuit after the release of a California Energy Commission (CEC) sponsored report on reducing bird mortalities in the area (Windpower Monthly, September 2004), and after Altamont Pass wind turbine owners agreed to draft a plan to reduce bird deaths based upon the report's recommendations.

The plan, says CBD, proposes more research on bird kills, not the remedies the organisation sought. The suit seeks damages for the deaths of up to 10,000 birds over 20 years, many of which are protected under federal environmental laws. The bird deaths have been caused by the roughly 5400 turbines in Altamont Pass, which, at 542 MW makes up more than one quarter of California's current 2043 MW of wind capacity and represents a huge potential for future repowering and wind development if the bird mortality problem can be overcome.

The wind industry is proposing far less mitigation than either the CEC or CBD had envisioned. "We contend that this is a serious shortcoming towards accomplishing any meaningful results and an ultimate reduction in bird mortalities," says the CEC's Linda Spiegel in a memo to the turbine owners. The industry's draft plan does not anticipate moving the most dangerous turbines and lacks a clear goal. Instead it offers continued research, even while it admits changes at the wind farms will be small and may not provide adequate sample sizes to be meaningful, she says.

Just a draft

The draft plan is just a starting point, says FPL's Steve Stengel, which owns about half the turbines at issue. It delivered the plan to the CBD hoping to get comments. "We thought we were working in collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity," he says. "We were surprised that we didn't receive comments, but instead were included in a lawsuit again. Biodiversity evidently feels litigation is more productive than collaboration."

FPL has so far removed 167 old Flowind vertical axis turbines and replaced them with 31 Vestas 660 kW turbines and it has shut down 97 Kenetech 100 kW units. Together the scrapped machines amount to about 10% of FPL-owned turbines. FPL also has upgraded utility poles, adding insulation to reduce electrocution.

The industry draft plan calls for painting turbine blades a colour that repels birds and eliminating access cows have to the grass around the machines. As Stengel explains, cow dung fosters a proliferation of grasshoppers, which attract federally protected burrowing owls to the turbines. "The challenge with Altamont is that there are a number of things proposed to reduce collisions that have met with mixed success. Let's try them first and see if they work," he says.

More companies

Also named in the new lawsuit are GREP, Green Ridge Power, Altamont Power, Enxco, Seawest Windpower, Windworks, Altamont Winds, and Pacific Winds. They are charged with unlawful and unfair business practices under California's Unfair Competition Law. The CBD's Miller admits the timing of the lawsuit has to do with the approval by voters in California of Proposition 64, which would eliminate CBD's ability to file the suit after 2004. The CBD is asking for damages, with the proceeds to go to the California Department of Fish and Game to buy nearby nesting habitat for raptors and burrowing owls.

CBD is also continuing to pursue a parallel process at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to shape future actions. It has appealed to overturn the board's decision to grant permits to the wind developers without first having completed an environmental assessment on the projects and without applying conditions on the permits to reduce bird kills. The board heard CBD's appeal at a meeting in November and may decide on the request as early as this month. Depending on the decision, another lawsuit could be in the works, Miller says.

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