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Proposal puts turbines near key refuges on Atlantic Flyway

Huge numbers of migrating waterfowl have been wintering in eastern North Carolina for thousands of years.

Returning from Arctic breeding grounds, some of the largest flocks of snow geese and tundra swans on the continent pour into the marshy Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula turning it into a North American Serengeti.

“You don’t think there could be that many birds in the world,” said Larry Hodges, a waterfowl hunter and conservationist. “You would think you have to go thousands of miles to get that, but you don’t – it’s right here.”

But this ancient stop on the Atlantic Flyway may soon have a new neighbor.

Pantego Wind Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, is proposing development of 49 turbines around two national wildlife refuges that host 100,000 or so tundra swans and snow geese between November and March.

The proposed 80-megawatt wind facility would spread out the towering turbines over more than 11,000 acres of farmland near the Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet national wildlife refuges.

Refuge advocates like Hodges who successfully fought a U.S. Navy plan a few years back to build an air strip near the refuges are now expressing concern about the turbines’ impact on migrating waterfowl – either through direct mortality or by substantially reducing critical foraging habitat (Greenwire, Jan. 26).

“We’re pretty certain there’s going to be a detrimental impact,” said Howard Phillips, the manager of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. “The whole question is, ‘Is it going to go to a population level impact?’ And we don’t know that.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked state utility officials to delay in issuing a permit for the turbine development until bird population studies can be completed, but it was rejected.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission granted the Pantego wind facility a certificate of public convenience and necessity March 8 – the first of many permits the developers need. Pantego is hoping to break ground by year’s end and get the turbines whirring by the end of 2013.

“We believe we can develop this project in a responsible way that complies with all federal and local laws,” said David Groberg, vice president of business development for Invenergy.

Pantego Wind Energy would be one of the first two commercial-scale wind farms in North Carolina. The turbines are expected to generate enough electricity to power 15,000 residences, which the utilities commission staff calls a “significant” contribution toward the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS). The mandate rises from 3 percent in 2012 to 12.5 percent in 2021.

The wind farm would also be one of the largest generators of tax revenue for Beaufort County, offering a “long-term, stable revenue source to local government,” the developers say. The county commission also passed a unanimous resolution of support for the project last week.

“Besides being green … it’s a very good economic development project for our county,” said Randell Woodruff, the county manager. “Our area has been hit very hard by the recession, and we need all the economic development projects we can handle.”

And, while about 70 percent of the project footprint falls within what the National Audubon Society calls a globally recognized “important bird area,” Woodruff said the commissioners believe the project’s wildlife impact would be “minimal.”

But biologists and conservationists see a significant impact as birds and turbines collide.

More than 75 percent of eastern population tundra swans – about 30,000 birds – roost on the lakes in the refuge and fly to surrounding farms to dine.

Phillips, the refuge manager, is concerned the lumbering birds, which can grow up to 23 pounds with a 5-foot wing span, are not agile enough to avoid collisions with the turbines, which will be 500 feet tall at the tip of their blades.

Even if direct mortality turns out to be low, Audubon North Carolina’s Curtis Smalling is concerned about the birds avoiding the site and therefore losing a substantial amount of foraging habitat.

“What does that do to overwintering survival? Daily movements? We just don’t know,” said Smalling, who is the nonprofit’s important bird area coordinator.

Studies are under way to gather more information about the birds that spend winters in the area and will be completed in the coming months. Pantego is leading the studies, with technical assistance from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Environmental review

Phillips requested that the utilities commission hold off issuing its permit until the bird studies were completed because his understanding is that there will be no other environmental review for the project.

The commission, in its order issuing the certificate, said it does not have the legal authority to deny the permit based on migratory bird concerns and lacks expertise to analyze environmental impacts. Rather, its role is purely economic and is to look out for the best interest of ratepayers.

Even so, the commission conditioned the certificate on several actions to minimize impacts to wildlife. Specifically, Pantego Wind Energy must prepare an avian- and bat-protection plan in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service before construction, as well as a post-construction monitoring and adaptive management plan.

The company must also agree to follow the wind energy guidelines developed by the service, which call for a tiered approach to allow for evaluation and adaption to minimize the effects to wildlife both before and after project construction.

And, the certificate order requires the company to comply with all other laws that may apply to the project and site, including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Invenergy’s Groberg said it was premature to discuss any steps the company would take to minimize, or if necessary, mitigate wildlife impacts. But stressed again, “The bottom line is we’re committed to complying with all local, state and federal laws.”

Skeptical locals

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is in the process of determining what permits the wind farm will require and what level of environmental review might be entailed. But activists in eastern North Carolina remain concerned the project could slide through without any further analysis and are looking into alternatives to stop the project.

“We will have to pursue some type of legal action and why due process was not followed,” said Hodges, the duck hunter who is a spokesperson for the Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, a citizen group that champions the refuge.

As a hunter, Hodges said he is gravely concerned about the impact the turbines could have on waterfowl populations and hunting in the refuges. If the birds do avoid the area because of the turbines, it could deal a serious blow to the local economy that depends in part on hunting and wildlife viewing tourism and the outdoor recreation industry, Hodges said.

He also questions why the company wants to build a wind farm on this site, when studies by the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory found wind speeds about 165 feet up in the air to be marginal to fair in this part of the peninsula, as compared to excellent winds along the coast and offshore. The proposed project site is about 60 miles from the beaches of the Outer Banks.

“We think this is one of the strongest wind resources available for development in the southeast United States,” Groberg said.

Battle over air strip

Hodges was part of the group of people who were instrumental in stopping the Navy in recent years from building a touch-and-go landing strip for pilot training not far from where the wind farm is proposed.

There was a huge groundswell of opposition to the Navy Outlying Landing Field, which involved several hot-button topics like a proposal to poison waterfowl to reduce the bird strike risk to pilots and equipment, and eminent domain.

A coalition, including Audubon North Carolina, successfully sued to force additional environmental review, and the Navy eventually dropped the idea, looking to other locations in North Carolina, Virginia and, eventually, California (Greenwire, Jan. 23, 2008).

Hodges said it has been harder to generate the same level of interest and opposition because so many people are in favor of clean energy. While he too supports wind energy, “the best idea in the world in the wrong location all of a sudden becomes the worst idea in the world.”

Audubon’s comments to the utilities commission about the project are noticeably diplomatic, even though the project is mostly within bird habitat and so close to the Navy landing strip that the group had so vehemently opposed.

“There’s a big difference between a jet coming in 700 miles per hour and a stationary wind turbine,” Smalling said.

Also, the project is proposed at the extreme southern border of the important bird area, away from spots with even higher bird concentrations, and is on agricultural land, not marshes or forests, Smalling said. Since Audubon has a national policy of supporting wind energy, this means the project falls into a “gray area,” he said.

The group is eager to see what the bird studies show, so they can refine their comments and recommendations based on solid science.

“Let’s wait and see what the data actually says,” Smalling said. “There is still a chance we could come out against the project.”