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Feds raise concerns about proposed wind farm near wildlife refuge

U.S. wildlife authorities have added their voice to the chorus of ecologists and environmentalists who are fighting a proposed wind farm near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina.

The proposed 11,000-acre Pantego wind farm, with 49 turbines extending nearly 500 feet to the tip of the blade, would be located just several miles from a bird refuge that attracts swarms of migrating waterfowl during the winter months. The birds fly out at night to forage on nearby farms, some of which would host turbines with blades that can spin at over 100 miles per hour.

Critics worry the the blades will injure and kill flying birds in a phenomenon some have dubbed the Cuisinart effect. The latest to express concern is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a filing made late Monday to the N.C. Utilities Commission, the agency that has the authority to approve, deny or delay the project.

The federal filing says the species at greatest risk is the tundra swan, a bird that can weigh up to 23 pounds, has a wingspan up to 5 1/2 feet, and flies at night to forage in nearby farms.

Environmental advocacy groups and state wildlife officials are asking the N.C. Utilities Commission to delay issuing a ruling until the proposed turbine locations can be evaluated for their potential risks to flying birds.

Chicago-based Invenergy, the company proposing the Pantego wind farm, is currently doing a study during the migratory season to assess potential impacts to birds. The company has been in contact with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since April 2010, and is conducting a 20-week study to identify bald eagle nests, tundra swan roots, foraging habitats, and daily flight routes between the refuge and foraging areas.

Invenergy had planned to complete the study in March, but the Fish & Wildlife Service letter warns that several years will be needed to collect reliable data.

“Due to crop rotations in the project area and other variables, it would likely take years, rather than a single field season as is planned, for the company’s current study to gather the appropriate data,” says the interior department letter, signed by Howard Phillips, refuge manager with the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Tundra swans breed in Alaska and western Canada, but over-winter along the Pacific Coast and the East Coast. Of the swans that fly East, about 75 percent come to Eastern North Carolina, Phillips writes.

“Thus, this area supports a substantial part of this international migratory bird resource for four to six months annually,” Phillips writes.”During the winter, Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet [National Wildlife Refuges] become home to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl.”