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North Carolina wind project could kill eagles

Last week was North Carolina’s first celebration of the increasingly popular American Eagle Day, June 20, a tribute to the American bald eagle and the eagle’s slow but impressive comeback across the United States.

The day brought to mind the ongoing battle over the proposed Pantego Wind Energy project in eastern North Carolina’s Beaufort County, a project that according to a recent study could kill up to 20 bald eagles each year, not to mention tundra swans, snow geese and a variety of ducks. Though the wind project is proposed to be built in the midst of some of the state’s and nation’s finest migratory bird habitats, the North Carolina Utilities Commission recently gave approval to the Pantego project, pending results of a company-run study of project impacts on wildlife.

First, let it be said that America needs to develop financially viable sources of renewable and sustainable energy, by both maximizing benefits and minimizing risks to people and the environment. While this endeavor is challenging, common sense can help guide decisions about where major new energy facilities should not be constructed.

The Pantego project, proposed by Invenergy of Chicago, is fast becoming one of the nation’s most egregiously sited wind-energy facilities. The project is to be built in the midst of the winter home of many thousands of migratory waterfowl. For 80 years, land in and around the planned 11,000-acre facility has been managed to promote the enormous and continentally significant flocks of birds.

Several of America’s finest national wildlife refuges – Pocosin Lakes, Alligator River and Lake Mattamuskeet – in concert with local landowners, provide the winter base from which these incredible animals can fly each spring thousands of miles to the north. Remarkably, if the project moves ahead, the migratory swans, geese, ducks, and raptors may return to their winter Carolina home in a year or two to find 49 spinning turbines, each the height of the Washington Monument.

Following the Utilities Commission’s ruling to perform a wildlife study, Pantego officials recently submitted a preliminary report with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that indicates there are unexpected numbers of bald eagles in the Pantego area. One wonders how the company can continue to consider the project sustainable. While killing or injuring bald eagles is a federal crime, a federal “incidental-take” waiver could allow the Pantego facility to operate. Invenergy has said it might seek such a permit.

All this comes at the same time Secretary Ken Salazar and his Department of the Interior have released voluntary guidelines on how best to site new wind energy projects, specifically to protect special wildlife habitat and significant bird populations. The voluntary guidelines are supported by the American Wind Energy Association and 40 individual energy companies, including Invenergy. That’s important given that the guidelines’ intent is expressly to avoid building ill-sited projects like Pantego.

But even in the face of their own recent report that highlights risks to bald eagles and their signed support for voluntary federal guidelines to minimize wind-project impacts on birds, Invenergy officials remain confident “that a full, fair and factual study” will show that the Pantego wind project will protect and conserve wildlife.

While it is important to study North Carolina’s wetlands, common sense indicates that the Pantego wind project risks the well-being of significant numbers and species of birds and that new sources of energy are awaiting Invenergy elsewhere.

To reverse its diminishing public reputation, Invenergy should announce on the 4th of July that it is saving American bald eagles by pulling back from Pantego and moving on to other more sustainable wind projects.

Daniel deB. Richter, Jr. is a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.