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NY DEC comments re: Chautauqua wind farm  

Author:  | Filings, New York, Siting, Wildlife

STATE ENVIRONMENTAL AGENCY FINDS FUNDAMENTAL FLAWS IN BIRD STUDY FOR PROPOSED WIND TURBINE PROJECT AND PREDICTS SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER BIRD MORTALITY Tuesday, January 11, 2005

WESTFIELD – The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has recently released comments highly critical of a study of potential risks to birds at the proposed site of a wind power development in the towns of Ripley and Westfield (Chautauqua County), New York. The Draft Avian Risk Assessment (ARA), issued by the developer in June, 2004, claimed that the proposed wind power project would pose a negligible risk to birds. But citing fundamental flaws in the study, the DEC argues that their “staff’s critical review of the ARA finds its conclusions are unreliable.” The DEC “cannot endorse the use of the ARA to determine the impact or risk to avian resources from the Chautauqua Wind Project.”

The towns of Ripley and Westfield required the ARA in conjunction with the towns’ consideration of the developer’s proposal for an electric generating project. The proposed project would build more than 30 electric generating wind turbines, each over 390 feet tall, along a five-mile stretch of the ridge overlooking the Lake Erie plain.

A careful and credible assessment of bird-risk for the project is imperative, because, according to DEC, the project is proposed for an “extremely important bird/raptor migration area” that “ranks as the third most significant New York spring raptor migration site.” During migration other birds are also concentrated at the site. The ARA acknowledged that “more than 1 million landbirds in the spring and more than 2 million landbirds in the fall pass through [the area of the project].”

DEC staff “strongly believe that the mortality expected from a completed Chautauqua project will be significantly higher” than that predicted in the developer’s ARA. DEC enumerates the flaws in the methodology and assumptions that form the basis of the ARA. According to the DEC, the ARA estimate of environmental risk was based on “1) bird passage rates derived from a sparse and incomplete collection of data, 2) [mortality estimates] inappropriately derived from other studies, and 3) a series of broad, general statements provided without sufficient scientific basis or documentation.”

The DEC comments indicate that the sparse and incomplete collection of data may have led to under-counting of birds and an under-estimation of risk. The DEC comments conclude that the field studies used as the foundation for the ARA “were undertaken for a very limited period of actual sampling time, failed to sample a vast amount of airspace, and appear to have missed the actual peak periods of migration for passerines.”

The DEC staff also fault the study’s estimate of expected bird kills based on two previous bird mortality studies – one from a wind turbine facility in Spain and the other from a facility in Oregon. DEC states that these mortality studies conducted at distant locations “are of questionable relevance to a study of wind development in western New York.” Ripley Hawk Watch volunteer Gil Randell observes, “the DEC corroborates our concern that you can’t base mortality estimates in Chautauqua County on studies done at sites on the other side of the continent and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.” Ripley Hawk Watch coordinator Len DeFrancisco added, “the DEC comments support our complaint that the ARA predicted bird kills based on studies of projects that have much smaller and less risky turbines, different resident and migrating bird species, different migration patterns, different weather, different geography and different everything.”

Additionally, the DEC refutes the ARA’s claim that resident bald eagles are not at significant risk. The ARA claimed that “bald eagles are expected to have no exposure to the [rotor-swept area], and therefore, no mortality.” DEC contends, however, that this assertion is contradicted by the ARA, itself, which documented “2 of 14 observed bald eagles (14%) flying within the zone of potential risk.” On the basis of this and other documentation, DEC states that “bald eagles and other protected species do and can be expected to use the project area.”

The DEC also characterizes as “unsubstantiated speculation” the ARA’s claim that “eagles have excellent eyesight and maneuverability; thus, it is to be expected that they see the oncoming turbines and avoid them.” DEC points out that the acute eyesight and maneuverability of golden eagles have not helped them escape slaughter at wind power plants in the Altamont Pass in California, where “over 1000 of them have been killed.” DEC further observes that “the fact that no bald eagle has ever been reported … killed by a wind turbine … is most likely a function of a lack of turbines in or near occupied bald eagle areas.” DEC also points out that “Recently, eight white-tailed sea eagles …, perhaps the bald eagle’s closest relative, were found killed by wind turbines in Germany.”

The DEC also criticizes the ARA’s characterization of the movement of fledgling bald eagles. Commenting on the ARA’s contention that “fledglings perch within 1.5 km of the nest,” the DEC says, “This statement by the applicant appears to imply that fledglings stay relatively close to the nest and will not enter into or be vulnerable to the turbine area. At best, this is a limited characterization of fledgling movements and can be construed as an attempt to give the reader the false impression that young eagles … will not move into the [turbine area] and thus face harm.” The DEC continues by saying “the 1.5 km figure cited in the ARA is a generalization not supported by available data.”

The DEC also points out that the ARA failed to include any “in-field investigation of hatitat/territory use by either pair of bald eagles, except for occasional and poorly documented observation sessions staked out near the nest sites.” The comments point out that “No scientifically designed eagle movement study was conducted.” Whereas the ARA claims that the territories of the two eagle nests do not overlap the project area, the DEC observes that the ARA “provides no evidence or study supporting this,” further stating that based on “available data and from staff’s experience, … eagles already use the [project area] and can be expected to use the project area in the future.”

The DEC also is concerned about the risk the project would pose to bats. Despite previous DEC requests for information on resident and migrating bats, the ARA fails to include this information. The DEC states that at a West Virginia wind turbine facility “bat mortality rates may have been higher than those of birds,” and requests that the developer provide information on bats at the proposed Westfield-Ripley wind turbine site.

The Avian Risk Assessment, when finalized, will form part of the Environmental Impact Statement, a broader study that is required for the proposed wind power project. The Westfield and Ripley Town Boards will ultimately make the decision about whether the project will move forward. CCCRWP member Paul Coran said, “The DEC has provided the towns with a well reasoned and thorough review of the ARA to assist them with their important decisions.”

A copy of the DEC comments can be viewed at www.wind.netwny.com

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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