Supporters of Patuxent River Naval Air Station aren’t the only ones ruffled by a proposal to build 25 wind turbines across the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The Navy says those turbines would interfere with sensitive radar testing. Others say those turbines could kill an alarming number of bald eagles and other birds.
Texas-based Pioneer Green has plans to build windmills near Westover, a point just outside a heavily traveled path of bird migration. One government worker estimates a permit, if approved, would allow the company’s turbines to kill nearly two dozen eagles a year.
“We want them to thoroughly assess the risk to birds, particularly eagles,” said Michael Hutchins, national coordinator of the Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign with the American Bird Conservancy, a nonprofit group. About 30 bald eagle nests are estimated to be within 10 miles of the proposed site. Each nest indicates that two eagles have mated, call the area home and that their young may also be nearby. Other migrating bald eagles find temporary respite along the Chesapeake after escaping hot, rainy Florida in the summer and Maine in the winter.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates there are more than 500 nesting pairs of eagles in the state, at least a pair in each county. Most are in the eastern part of Maryland.
Maryland has a requirement that 20 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. Last month, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) vetoed the legislature’s decision to delay the wind project for further study, designed to determine how those turbines would interfere with Navy tests. The delay likely would have killed the project.
O’Malley said climate change and rising sea levels were of greatest concern and that alternative energy would help curb those problems. Environmentalists say the same issues put birds at risk, and windmills, so close to the Chesapeake, would be one more thing to kill them.
“We don’t just give them an open-ended permit to take as many eagles as they want,” said Sarah Nystrom, bald eagle and golden eagle coordinator in the Hadley, Mass.-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s northeast regional office, which includes Maryland.
Killing bald eagles without permission is illegal. Pioneer Green has applied for a $1,000, five-year permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would essentially limit their liability if eagles are killed as a result of its project. That permit has not yet been approved, Nystrom said. But it likely would allow the company to kill up to 20 eagles a year.
That would be about 5 percent of eagles hatched in that area and would not threaten the existence of the species, she said.
If the company kills more than the set amount of eagles, Nystrom said, the government could impose fines, starting at $1,000 a bird over the set allowance, up to six months in jail for those responsible, and force Pioneer Green to shut down its turbines.
Other birds, such as blue herons, ospreys and a number of songbirds live in or migrate through the same area.
But, Nystrom said, those birds are more common. Bald eagles, removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007 and from Maryland’s three years later, would be at greatest risk if the Pioneer Green project moves ahead.
“The number of birds being killed by wind energy is not trivial,” Hutchins said. He estimates 600,000 – including golden eagles in California – collided with turbines in the United States in 2012.
“Feral cats kill more birds. Collisions with buildings kill more birds,” Hutchins acknowledged. “So what? The cumulative impact is great and not sustainable.”
Many birders and Pax River proponents say they’re for wind energy. They just want the turbines to be located much farther inland.
“We’ve spent the last four years planning and designing our site,” said Adam Cohen, vice president and co-founder of Pioneer Green. There is a main transmission line in the area, making it an ideal location. Turbines would be placed about a mile offshore and 1,000 feet apart. They would be dotted across about 8,000 acres of farmland that belongs to about 200 landowners. Transmission lines from the turbines would be buried.
Cohen also emphasized that the turbines would be located away from the main migratory flyway for birds, which follows the coast of the bay and extends east toward the Atlantic.
“Should we trust big business?” Hutchins asked. “Is that the lesson we’ve learned over the past 10 years? These guys are in it for money. They’re trying to make themselves look very green, but they’re not always.”
“If you lose even just a small part of the whole food chain and ecosystem, there’s a domino effect,” said Mike Callahan, an environmental educator in Charles County and past president of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, explaining that birds help control the insect population, may help pollinate plants and are part of the food chain themselves.
Bald eagles are part of the American landscape, Callahan said. When countries lose part of their “natural heritage,” he said, they lose part of their pride.
“We are citizens of the planet Earth, and we should all work to be good stewards,” Callahan said, “and to make sure this Earth and its inhabitants are around for future generations.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding