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PUC denies wind developer’s avian protection plan

Wildlife had the upper hand Thursday as Minnesota regulators chose to require more stringent studies of how birds and bats could be affected by wind turbines in Goodhue County.

At a hearing in St. Paul, the Public Utilities Commission denied 2-1 the avian and bat protection plan proposed by developer AWA Goodhue Wind. Creating the plan was a stipulation added by the commission on June 30 to the amended site permit it approved for AWA. That particular amendment instructed the company to come up with a protection plan in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before submitting it to the PUC for final approval prior to any pre-construction meetings.

In addition to drafting the protection plan, AWA has been working toward obtaining from USFWS an incidental take permit that would legally allow the project a certain amount of eagle fatalities.

“It’s the risk of take is unavoidable, not that the take is inevitable,” AWA Goodhue attorney Christina Brusven said.

Brusven told commissioners the project is meant to provide 78 megawatts of renewable energy to Minnesota.

“It does not intend to have a negative impact on birds and bats in the area, and it certainly does not intend to kill bald eagles,” she explained.

Though unintended, any bird or bat fatalities that result from wind turbines are highly objected by a lot of local citizens. A handful of project opponents spoke at the PUC meeting, many requesting the commission require AWA to conduct at least two more years of studies on the avian population before constructing any part of its wind farm.

“Acquiring an (incidental take permit) will not correct the many glaring deficiencies in this plan,” Rochester resident Mary Hartman said.

One of the deficiencies is that AWA experienced technical failure with one of its two bat detection systems.

Commissioner J. Dennis O’Brien said his vote for denial was partially influenced by the fact that the initial studies weren’t done the way they should have been as a result of the technical difficulties.

“Fix the difficulties and do the study,” O’Brien told AWA.

O’Brien and Commissioner Betsy Wergin each voted to deny the avian and bat protection plan.

“We do need the missing bat data before we can say it’s complete,” said Wergin, who was the only commissioner to vote against approval of a site permit back in June.

Even in rejecting the plan, commissioners made it clear that Thursday’s vote doesn’t mean the end of the road for the wind project.

“It’s a decision on this plan and its inadequacies,” O’Brien clarified.

AWA Goodhue can develop and submit a new plan to the PUC, but having its current plan rejected will likely put a kink in the expected timeline. Construction was set to begin by June 1 this year.