ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has set the public hearing Feb. 2 for the Avian and Bat Protection Plan associated with the AWA Goodhue wind project.
The news was released Friday, one day after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed separate paperwork challenging or disputing portions of the 127-page ABPP.
Approval of the plan is the final permitting hurdle National Wind, the project developer, must clear before it can begin constructing the 78-megawatt project; it has targeted June to break ground. The process, which includes a legal appeal proceeding concurrently, has taken almost three years.
The bird-and-bat plan, which was finalized in December and is among the first of its kind, has become the latest target of criticism.
A 12-page report by the USFWS and the five-page document from DNR that were posted to the PUC docket Thursday echo concerns that have been voiced for months by citizens, since Westwood Professional Services, the environmental agency hired by National Wind, identified no bald eagle activity within the project footprint in its initial report filed to the PUC in 2010.
“It’s almost like there might be a showdown between the DNR and (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife and Westwood,” said Rochester’s Mary Hartman, a project critic who has been the catalyst in identifying and verifying six to seven active bald eagle nests within the project footprint. “We were really well represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the DNR. (It shows) our information was fair and accurate.”
Though officials from the DNR and USFWS did not return calls on Friday, both agencies appear to have issues with many of the plans and claims developed in National Wind’s document. For example, the plan specifically states that the USFWS has no recommendations for avoiding and minimizing impacts from wind turbines on bald eagle nests. In response, the service cited a 2003 guide that calls for a minimum two-mile setback from bald eagle nests and another document from 2007 that contains “explicit spatial buffer recommendations” around bald eagle nests and important eagle use areas.
Issues with eagles
Both agencies also took issue with how the ABPP used eagle baiting allegations to explain increased avian activity in the project footprint. National Wind claims its point count surveys have been “seriously compromised by an active baiting program being conducted by project opponents.” However, no landowner has been cited for baiting and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health has not drawn any correlation between carcass disposal and increased bald eagle activity.
“The service recommends AWA Wind analyzes the data they have collected, rather than attempt to extrapolate potential data,” wrote Tony Sullins, USFWS field supervisor.
Turbine shut downs were also recommended as a potential mitigation plan, while calls for clarification and more data were common – though bald eagle issues were most prevalent.
Across the United States, five bald eagle deaths have been reported in wind projects. The USFWS says information on those incidents cannot be shared because most are tied up in litigation.
It’s unclear if public comment will be allowed at the Feb. 2 PUC hearing. A PUC spokesman did not return calls on Friday.
Minnesota Public Utilities Commission meeting: 121 E. Seventh Place, Suite 350, St. Paul, 9:30 a.m. Feb. 2.
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