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Feds broke law approving wind project near eagle nests, lawsuit claims

A conservation group and two area residents have sued the federal government over its approval of a wind project in eastern San Diego County they say poses an unlawful risk to golden eagles.

The Santa Ysabel-based group Protect Our Communities, along with East County residents Dave Hogan and Nica Knite, filed suit Wednesday against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior. The plaintiffs charge that the agencies’ approval of a second phase of the Tule Wind Project violates federal environmental laws and threatens San Diego County’s remaining golden eagles.

The project’s second phase, on the Ewiiaapaayp Kumeyaay Indian Reservation near Alpine, would add up to 20 new large turbines to the larger Tule Wind project, most of which is on BLM lands in the McCain Valley area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned project owner Iberdrola Renewables that Tule Wind as a whole poses too high a risk to local golden eagles for the agency to grant the project’s second phase a permit to allow it to kill eagles.

“San Diego’s majestic Golden Eagles are already in trouble, with their population predicted to drop by half to only 25 breeding pairs,” said POCs Executive Director Kelly Fuller on Wednesday. “The last thing San Diego’s Golden Eagles need are whirling blades near their nests and where they are soaring with the wind. We’re suing today because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly warned the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] that phase II of the Tule Wind project would kill eagles, but the [bureau] scorned Fish and Wildlife’s requests to change turbine siting on the ridgeline or move the project entirely,” Fuller added.

In an August 1 letter from USFWS denying Iberdrola’s application for an eagle take permit for Phase II of Tule Wind, the wildlife agency criticized Iberdrola for attempting to separate the project’s two phases for purposes of eagle risk assessment, pointing out that Phase I is as yet unbuilt:

Although Phase I was approved by BLM in 2011, your company has not started construction on Phase I and has linked construction of the turbines in the valley (Phase I) to the construction of the turbines on the ridgeline (Phase II). Thus, the Service does not consider this project to be phased, relative to permitting take under the Eagle Act.

Despite the fact that both Phases would be built at about the same time, said USFWS in its rejection, Iberdrola included eagle data on just the smaller Phase II area instead of considering the risk to eagles from the project as a whole.

“We characterize the entire Tule Wind Project as a Category I High Risk Project because it poses a high risk to eagles and the potential to avoid or mitigate impacts is low,” said USFWS in its rejection letter. “We recommend that when you apply for an Eagle Act permit, you consider a different turbine siting design for the proposed turbines on the ridgeline or moving the project to another location.”

In the meantime, according to the lawsuit, when the BLM analyzed risks to eagles from Tule Wind before approving Phase I in 2011, that agency didn’t consider the additional risk from the “ridgeline” turbines that would be part of Phase II. That means that the whole-project threat to eagles has apparently never been fully assessed.

“Seeing eagles and other wildlife is one of the reasons why Californians visit San Diego’s mountains,” said local business owner Nica Knite, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Local businesses, the Cleveland National Forest, and other cherished public lands benefit from that wildlife tourism. We need to protect wildlife in order to keep people coming to the mountains and spending the tourist dollars that sustain San Diego’s public lands and mountain communities.”

“The Tule Wind project just doesn’t make sense. We don’t have to choose between eagles and renewable energy. There are better clean energy alternatives that are less hazardous to eagles, such as rooftop solar and energy efficiency,” said energy consultant Bill Powers, a member of the POC Board of Directors.