An estimated 12 million migratory birds will be put at risk if two large offshore wind turbine projects are built in Lake Ontario, according to a report released this week by the Kingston Field Naturalists.
Three members of the volunteer organization who conducted a year-long, unpaid study are particularly concerned about two offshore projects that would see the a total of 268 turbines planted to the north and south of Main Duck Island, a natural stopping off point for hundreds of species.
“We think 12 million is low because it’s based on birds being studied at Prince Edward Point. The ones which don’t stop at Prince Edward Point aren’t being included yet,” said Chris Hargreaves, who worked on the report with Erwin Batalla and Barrie Gilbert.
The section of Lake Ontario from Prince Edward County to Wolfe Island is an acknowledged migratory flyway for 300 species of birds heading to U.S. wintering grounds and returning to Canada in the spring to nest.
The naturalists are especially concerned about the array of existing and proposed turbine projects that, if all completed, would create a deadly obstacle course of more than 1,000 turbines stretching from New York state to eastern Ontario.
They want to see more in-depth studies completed before further work goes ahead.
“Why would we go ahead with the industrialization of the Great Lakes without studies?” said Gilbert, a retired biology professor and lead researcher who has returned to Kingston after years of teaching in the U.S. “These are not windmills. This is not a wind farm. They’re industrial wind turbines.”
Gilbert said proof of the deadly effects turbines have on birds can be found on Wolfe Island where 86 turbines operate.
The bird mortality rate on the island, he said, is the highest for any wind project in Canada.
“I warned them five years ago there’s be a big bird kill,” said Gilbert. “Five years ago I said there will be big damage to birds. I think this is a no-brainer.”
Wolfe Island is part of the flyway in their study. The two proposed offshore projects that concern the naturalists most are the Wolfe Island Shoals, the 130-turbine proposal for north of Main Duck Island, and the 138-turbine facility proposed by Trillium Power to the south of the island.
Main Duck is a nature reserve under the protection of Parks Canada.
In February 2011, both were stopped by a government-ordered moratorium on offshore wind projects. The provincial government said more time was needed to complete studies on potential effects on the environment and to people’s health.
Trillium has sued the province for $2.25 billion claiming the cancellation of their agreement was politically motivated by public complaints. The court case started earlier this month in Toronto.
The naturalists, who call themselves “science-based advocates for birds,” say that the lake-based turbines will affect species that currently enjoy a safe passageway, particularly larger raptors such as red-tailed hawks.
“It’s creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings,” said Gilbert. “The bigger birds are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. They’re like the grizzly bears of the bird world. They have no way to compensate for excessive mortality.”
They’re hoping the finding of at least 12 million migratory birds using the relatively narrow Lake Ontario route twice a year will urge the government to reconsider its placement of turbines.
“If science rules the day, this is our coup de grace on wind turbines,” said Gilbert. “It shows the magnitude of the risk.”
As they write in the report, “turbines strung out across the open lake and adjacent shoreline could be compared to a fish net across a river.”
Gilbert said government scientists should produce a map showing all existing and proposed wind turbine facilities, land- and water-based, so that the total effects on wildlife can be determined.
“We should be putting turbines in the places they’re not going to kill birds,” said Gilbert. “We need to have zones where no turbines go. There’s enough risk (on Lake Ontario) that we shouldn’t go ahead.”
What the study does not do is estimate the number of bird kills that would be caused by the offshore turbines. While birds may be able to avoid the massive rotating blades in clear
weather, they note that low cloud can force them to fly at lower altitudes and put them in deadly contact with turbines.
Hargreaves said there is a basic moral question about how acceptable it is to build manmade structures knowing bird deaths will occur.
“Some will say this is OK because the expected mortality is, say 3% or 5%,” he said. “But who is counting up? At what point will someone say this is wrong? It’s not what we do. When we put up wind turbines, what is acceptable? Can we put them up as long as we don’t kill off a
Hargreaves said red-tailed hawks live all around the Kingston area but research is suggesting that they have moved away from Wolfe Island because of the turbines.
“Is this an issue?” he asked. “Is this a problem? You’ve still got thousands of them everywhere else. They’re not close to extinction but we’ve wiped them out of a whole area.”
Gilbert said the government needs to take a stand on wind turbine placements just as it has with policies that prevent filling in wetlands.
“Little decisions take you to a place you’d never want to be if you looked at it in total,” he said. “Our end point will be a highly reduced population of birds. To me (this report is) a test of the
process and the government’s implementation of its laws.”
The researchers point out that a number of the species that migrate across the Main Duck region are at-risk or endangered.
“The message,” said Hargreaves, “is that if the government is bringing in green energy as part of a balanced program it’s got to be balanced across all parts of the environment. You can’t put wind turbines in major migration routes.”
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