Some environmentalists are worried that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to allow a wind farm off the South Texas coast without demanding scientific studies necessary to ensure the protection of critical bird and wildlife habitats. Wind farms feature large spinning turbines, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley lies at the convergence of two migratory flyways and boasts a huge shore bird population as well.
Others say it’s too early to worry.
Baryonyx Corporation, the Houston-based firm behind the proposal, insists it plans to study the bird situation carefully no matter what. Baryonyx recently submitted its application to the USACE for the construction of three wind farms off the coast of Texas, including two projects off South Padre Island.
The company has more than 67,000 acres of submerged lands under lease from the Texas General Land Office across three sites between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. That includes nearly 48,000 acres off Cameron County divided between two parcels, which Baryonyx has dubbed Rio Grande and Rio Grande North.
What might have gotten some people riled up is a paragraph from the USACE’s public notice on the project, issued June 15, that states “a preliminary review of this application indicates that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is not required.”
The next sentence states that “since permit assessment is a continuing process, this preliminary determination of EIS requirement will be changed if data or information brought forth in the coordination process is of a significant nature.”
Jayson Hudson, USACE regulatory project manager, said public notices have to be issued within 15 days after a project application is submitted. As such, the preliminary decision on whether to require an EIS is made in a hurry and subject to change, depending on what information turns up during the public comment period.
“At this point we don’t know enough to make that decision,” Hudson said. “At this point we are trying to figure out what we do not know.”
He said the agency extended its original June 18 deadline for public comment to Aug. 17 after a flood of requests for more time from environmental groups and state and federal agencies.
The Houston Audubon Society has asked for public hearings as well. Hudson said public hearings are a possibility if the comment period doesn’t provide sufficient information, noting that his office has “several requests” for public hearings.
If it’s ultimately determined an EIS is required, the process could take two years. In instances when an EIS is not deemed necessary – the vast majority of cases— a less exhaustive type of review known as an “environmental assessment” is done.
Mark Leyland, Baryonyx’s senior vice president of offshore wind projects, said he’d be surprised if USACE didn’t call for a full-scale EIS, though his company intends to do an EIS-equivalent study no matter what the agency decides. He added that people are right to be concerned about the project’s impact.
“We fully anticipate doing a study of migratory birds,” Leyland said. “We need to get access to data to be able to make informed decisions about what’s going on. That’s what we’re fully prepared to do.”
He said Baryonyx intends to conduct itself openly and honestly, and thinks a wind farm is doable without harming large numbers of birds.
“We would not do a project that would do that,” Leyland said. “We are not in that game.”
He added that a wind farm potentially has “so many positives” for the region in terms of economic development and clean energy. If approved, Baryonyx’s wind farm project would be only the second authorized offshore wind farm in the United States. Cape Wind off Nantucket Island, Mass., is the only one to date.
Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club Lone Star chapter, said the organization has no official position on the Baryonyx project yet, though he thinks it’s premature to predict catastrophe. He noted that Baryonyx executives have expressed the desire to get their hands on every bit of information possible about species that could be impacted. In general, the Sierra Club is supportive of wind energy, Reed said.
“We hope that everybody looks at all the potential impact and that there are ways that we can go ahead with an offshore wind project, but also locate it in areas that avoid impacting wildlife species,” he said.
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