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Views vary on environmental effects

JOHNSTOWN – Morning after morning, for eight or nine months out of the year, workers walk for miles across local wind farms, looking for dead bats and birds.

Their efforts are part of an overall plan to understand the environmental impact of windmills on nature.

Operators of Pennsylvania’s wind farms voluntarily collect the data and submit it to the state game commission for review. In a March 2011 report, the commission determined an average of 24.6 bats and 3.9 birds were found dead next to every turbine per year between 2007 and 2009.

The information gathered helps the state and wind farm owners better understand the animals’ migratory patterns.

“They hope to use this information for the future when they hope to site new wind farms. … Quite a bit of it is prospective,” said Ed Shoener, owner of Shoener Environmental, which conducts bat and bird searches on local land.

Along with tracking migrations, the wind companies, government agencies and independent organizations analyze the environmental impact on water and land.

PennEnvironment, a pro-wind organization, recently released a report, claiming the commonwealth’s windmills fight global warming by displacing as much pollution as produced annually by 218,000 cars. “It’s no surprise that wind power is good for our environment; we’ve known that for years,” said PennEnvironment clean water advocate Erika Staaf. “But our report, for the first time, quantifies the full environmental impact and other environmental and health benefits that Pennsylvanians get from wind power.”

Many proponents of wind power consider it a valuable asset in developing a diversified statewide energy portfolio that includes coal, solar, Marcellus Shale natural gas, hydroelectric, oil and nuclear.

“We’re calling ourselves the energy county,” said Cambria County Commissioner Mark Wissinger. “We’re pretty much blessed with the coal and we’ve got the Marcellus coming our way. We’ve got natural gas. We’re even looking into some hydroelectric. That we have a position for energy here with wind is a big part of our formula.”

A lot of opponents feel the wind industry does not help reduce pollution enough to justify damage it does to nature, such as killing bats and birds and removing oxygen-producing trees from the land.

In the Appalachian Mountains region, including Pennsylvania, the density of potential wind power capacity is generally less than 100 kilowatt-hours per square kilometer, according to a 2007 report issued by the National Research Council titled “Environmental Effects of Wind Energy Projects.”

“The wind potential along the Appalachian ridges is relatively weak compared to other regions of the U.S., like the Great Plains from Texas up to the Dakotas. … The forested Appalachian ridges are what remain of the wilderness in the area. Basically, we’re doing damage to that for very little in return,” said Rick Webb, a senior scientist with the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and operator of the website vawind.com.

Somerset County has been dealing with the environmental impact of turbines since its first wind farm opened in 2000.

“I think that once the windmills are installed and in place (the issues are) negligible,” said Somerset County Commissioner Joe Betta. “That might not be a popular view. I walk near them. You hear a little bit of noise, but not much.”