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Study needed on turbines, environment

Recent opinion pieces in The Tribune Democrat have lauded the environmental benefits of wind turbines on Shaffer Mountain.

These opinions do not reflect scientific consensus, however, and they are not all backed by evidence.

The 33 proposed wind turbines on Shaffer Mountain necessitate an 18-mile network of roads and about 169 acres of deforestation in the Windber-Central City watershed. The roadways will abut wilderness streams and bogs that harbor native brook trout, orchids and carnivorous plants. The roads will facilitate the spread of invasive plant species that out-compete native species and inhibit their regeneration. The soil compaction under these roads, which increases over time, can persist for more than 40 years following abandonment.

The threat to migratory animals is even more disturbing. The Allegheny front has been part of a migration corridor for raptors, songbirds, bats and butterflies for thousands to millions of years. Hawk counters at the Allegheny Plateau hawk watch, located one mile south of Shaffer Mountain, documented 18,000 hawks, owls, eagles and falcons during the 2006 fall migration, including 220 eastern golden eagles, a subspecies with about 1,000 remaining individuals.

Many of these birds, as they travel along the ridges, would fly within the cutting zone of the 400-foot-high turbines. The Allegheny front hawk watch drew 2,000 to 3,000 visitors to Bedford and Somerset counties last year, and is therefore an important source of eco-tourism revenue.

Local and migratory bats are especially vulnerable to wind turbines. Bats forage along the roads leading to turbines, and then fly directly into the blades; they appear to be drawn to the noise of the turbines, which kill them by the hundreds.

Bats provide an important ecological service by consuming insects that kill trees and spread disease to humans, including gypsy moths and mosquitoes.

Presence of the Indiana bat – a protected endangered species – has been confirmed in recent surveys on Shaffer Mountain.

In light of the predicted impacts of global warming, it is imperative to find clean alternative sources of energy. Coal mining has wrought more ecological devastation in western Pennsylvania than wind turbines ever will. Unfortunately, even if natural heritage sites and migratory species are sacrificed for wind turbines, the electrical output of these turbines will pale in comparison to turbines in consistently windy sites in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded that long-term research is needed on the ecological impacts of wind turbines prior to their establishment on mid-Atlantic ridges. The academy recommended a minimum of three years for impact studies and that the results be made available for public and scientific scrutiny.

Full results of industry-funded research at the Shaffer Mountain site are kept under lock and key and are therefore of dubious scientific value. These studies should be peer-reviewed by the Pennsylvania Biologic Survey, which has expertise in all aspects of biology.

The most reasonable compromise for the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state game commission is to place a moratorium on wind-turbine development in biologically important sites until the environmental impacts are fully understood.

By Christopher Dick

Christopher Dick, a 1985 graduate of Richland High School, is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan.

The Tribune-Democrat

5 September 2007