Are proliferating wind turbines killing a large number of birds in Lancaster County and Pennsylvania? No, say the Game Commission and power companies. You’ll have to take their word for it.
Every other day since March 1, a searcher has walked a grid pattern under the two new wind turbines on Turkey Hill, looking for the carcasses of birds that may have been killed by the turning blades.
So, have there been any bats, tundra swans, birds of prey or endangered songbirds unfortunately whacked by the 135-foot-long blades?
Project owner PPL Renewable Energy and the Pennsylvania Game Commission know, but they’re not telling.
Certainly there is no reason to think many birds are being sliced and diced at the Manor Township site.
But shouldn’t the public be allowed to know if there are? After all, the turbines were partially built with federal stimulus funds, your tax dollars.
How about bird scientists with the Pennsylvania Biological Survey, the Game Commission’s independent scientific advisers who monitor the state’s bird populations? Should they be privy to the mortality rate at Pennsylvania’s proliferating wind turbines?
The group certainly thinks so, but the body count is not shared with them, either.
Instead, the Game Commission, apparently to gain turbine owners’ participation, agree to share information with each other but not anyone else.
The agreement states, “It is understood between the parties that information resulting from the cooperator’s compliance with this agreement shall be treated with the highest affordable level of confidentiality available unless otherwise agreed to in writing by both parties.”
When I requested the results of dead bird searches at the Turkey Hill project, PPL said it “was following the Game Commission’s protocol in keeping it in confidence.”
This is the questionable state of affairs several years into wind energy taking hold in Pennsylvania.
The Game Commission is responsible for the state’s birds and mammals.
As wind technology advanced like a sudden gust of wind several years ago, it became clear there were no comprehensive regulations in place to protect wildlife.
Working with energy companies – and at least initially independent advisers such as the PBS – the Game Commission fashioned a voluntary agreement designed to avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts on wild animals.
Mainly, we’re talking about birds, and especially bats, which seem to be most prone to running into turbine blades.
Since 2007, 73 percent of the owners of wind projects in the state have signed the Wind Energy Voluntary Cooperation Agreement.
Among the notable exceptions is Florida Power & Light and its subsidiaries, which have the most turbines in the state. High bat mortality has been found at some of them.
In addition to working with the Game Commission to reduce effects on birds, wind companies agree to do pre-construction surveys of birds and animals at proposed sites, and to count any mortality from turbines for two years after startup.
That advance scouting of bird habits and pooling of information has been effective, according to the Game Commission.
Turbines have been moved, bat-roosting locations have been pinpointed and protected, and even a few turbine sites have been abandoned, the agency says.
Indeed, at Turkey Hill, the number of turbines was reduced from four to two, the two turbines that were built were set back farther from the Susquehanna, vegetation is kept close-cropped so as not to attract predators and electrical lines were buried to discourage perching birds near the turbines – all because of pre-construction wildlife surveys, points out Steven Gabrielle of PPL.
“We’re not required to do this. We’re spending a lot of time and money to do this because we respect preserving the environment,” Gabrielle says.
Then why not prove it by making available the results of all those commendable approaches, I say.
Another who is very unhappy with the no-tell approach is George Gannon, a professor of biology and ecology at Penn State-Altoona who worked with the Game Commission in setting up the wind energy cooperative agreement on behalf of the PBS.
He voices this complaint, “There is no independent scientific peer review of anything submitted by the wind companies, as these data are not permitted to be seen by anyone else.
“This is contrary to the very basic premise of how good science works.”
He mentions a 2009 case in West Virginia where a federal court found that a wind company’s hired bat consultants reached a conclusion favorable to the client, but turned out to be inaccurate when the actual data was reviewed.
“It was Ronald Reagan who said ‘trust but verify,’ ” continues Gannon. “Unfortunately, with the system in place, the PGC cannot verify the work submitted by wind developers and the people of Pennsylvania cannot verify either the developers or the PGC.”
In 2007, a PBS wind energy and bats subcommittee accused the Game Commission of “side-stepping” input and review from the PBS in developing the cooperative agreement with wind energy developers.
The group, which included two PGC biologists, unanimously urged the agency to abandon the protocol used in evaluating bats and bat mortality at wind turbine sites and to “develop a more realistic, more meaningful, and more scientifically sound protocol.”
The current agreement “puts the interests of the wind industry before the interests of the Commonwealth,” the PBS group said.
The Game Commission recently issued its second wind energy summary report that includes 150 wildlife surveys and research under the voluntary agreement from 2007 through June 30, 2010.
Among the tidbits (no names, of course):
The number of bat deaths comes out to 24.6 per turbine per year.
Among birds, the average death rate was 3.9 per turbine per year.
Three state-endangered birds were killed: two blackpoll warblers and one yellow-bellied flycatcher. All three were deemed to be migrants passing through and not from local breeding populations.
No large mortality events were recorded, defined as more than 50 carcasses found in a single day.
Surveys conducted as part of the agreement have located new locations of state- and federally-listed bats.
As part of the cooperative agreement, the Game Commission has said it will not pursue liability against cooperating wind turbine companies that kill birds, as long as they comply with the conditions of the agreement.
The agency is proud of its efforts.
“The Cooperative Agreement has allowed Pennsylvania to become one of the national leaders for determining and addressing wildlife impacts from wind energy development, as well as providing critical data needed to address future wind energy project proposals,” said William Capouillez, director of the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management.
With some transparency on behalf of the Game Commission and wind turbine operators, maybe the public would come to the same conclusion.
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