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Windfarm plan rebuffed over eagle impacts  

Credit:  By Morgan Lee | San Diego Union-Tribune | Sept. 29, 2014 | www.utsandiego.com ~~

Prospects may have dimmed for a major new wind farm 60 miles east of San Diego after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a permit to address fatal collisions between golden eagles and spinning turbines.

Seizing on the spurned permit application, the San Diego County-based environmental group Protect Our Communities has accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its parent agency, the Interior Department, of violating federal bird protection laws in authorizing construction of the Tule Wind power plant, in a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

Iberdrola Renewables, a U.S. division of the Spanish utility giant, has been pursuing contracts and approvals from county, state and federal regulators for nearly a decade for the 85-turbine project in the McCain Valley north of Boulevard. The power plant would provide enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes.

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service returned a permit application and check to Iberdrola for an eagle “take” permit related to a series of ridgeline turbines at the Tule site.

Take permits shield the permit holder from federal prosecution for the inadvertent deaths of eagles.

The lawsuit asserts that the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorized construction and operation of the wind farm before an eagle take permit was obtained by either the agency or developer, against the advice of state and federal wildlife officials. It characterized the actions as a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A regional director for Fish and Wildlife recommended that Iberdrola consider rearranging the ridgeline turbines or moving the project to another location altogether to minimize or avoid eagle deaths, before resubmitting its take-permit application for the entire project. The ridgeline turbines are located on lands of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a record of decision in December authorizing a property lease for the construction of 20 turbines on tribal trust lands along the ridgeline.

A spokesman for Iberdrola characterized the lawsuit as frivolous and without merit, but declined to discuss details further because of the pending litigation.

“Our development efforts at Tule continue and this project has gone through years of careful scrutiny,” Iberdrola’s Art Sasse said Friday.

“We have proven time and again that we have responsibly sited this project with the utmost concern for wildlife and habitat.”

Kelly Fuller, executive director at Protect Our Communities, said recent surveys show about 50 pairs of golden eagles are currently nesting in San Diego County and are contending with the gradual encroachment of human development.

“To see Fish and Wildlife repeatedly say we want you either to redesign this turbine layout or move it to another location – they don’t say that very often,” said Fuller, who worked until recently for the American Bird Conservancy. “That’s why we have felt compelled to go forward on this.”

Fuller said Iberdrola has expressed a willingness to curtail hours of operation on some turbines, but that alone will not address the threat of the ridgeline turbines.

The lawsuit seeks to take back authorization of the project for further consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Co-plaintiffs to the lawsuit include two Mount Laguna residents who are avid naturalists and bird watchers.

One of them, Nica Knite, owner of the Pine House Cafe & Tavern, says her business depends on hikers that come to see eagles and other birds.

Seizing on the spurned permit application, the San Diego County-based environmental group Protect Our Communities has accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its parent agency, the Interior Department, of violating federal bird protection laws in authorizing construction of the Tule Wind power plant, in a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

Iberdrola Renewables, a U.S. division of the Spanish utility giant, has been pursuing contracts and approvals county, state and federal regulators for nearly a decade for the 85-turbine project in the McCain Valley north of Boulevard. The power plant would provide enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes.

In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned an permit application and check to Iberdrola for a eagle take permit related to a series of ridgeline turbines at the Tule site, according to documents obtained by Protect Our Communities, a San Diego County-based conservation group has opposed numerous energy projects in sensitive desert habitats.

Take permits can authorize the inadvertent deaths of eagles and shield the permit holder from federal prosecution. The permit holder may be the federal agency that oversees the lease of public lands.

The lawsuit asserts that the Bureau of Indian Affairs authorizing construction and operation of the wind farm before an eagle take permit was obtained, against the advice of the state and federal wildlife officials. It characterized the actions as a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Indian Affairs officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

A regional director for Fish and Wildlife recommended that Iberdrola consider rearranging the ridge-line turbines or moving the project to another location altogether to minimize or avoid eagle deaths, before submitting a take-permit application for the entire project. The ridgeline turbines are located on lands of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a record of decision in December authorizing a property lease for the construction of 20 turbines on tribal trust lands along the ridgeline.

A spokesman for Iberdrola characterized the lawsuit as frivolous and without merit but declined to discuss details further because of the pending litigation.

“Our development efforts at Tule continue and this project has gone through years of careful scrutiny,” said Iberdrola’s Art Sasse. “We have proven time and again that we have responsibly sited this project with the utmost concern for wildlife and habitat.”

Kelly Fuller, executive director at Protect Our Communities, said recent surveys show about 50 pairs of golden eagles are currently nesting in San Diego County and are contending with the gradual encroachment of human development.

“To see Fish and Wildlife repeatedly say we want you either to redesign this turbine layout or move it to another location – they don’t say that very often,” said Fuller, who worked until recently for the American Bird Conservancy. “That’s why we have felt compelled to go forward on this.”

Fuller said Iberdrola has expressed a willingness to curtail hours of operation on some turbines, but that alone will not address the threat of the ridgeline turbines.

The lawsuit seeks to take back authorization of the project for further consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Co-plaintiffs to the lawsuit include two Mount Laguna residents who are avid naturalists and bird watchers. One of them, Nica Knite, owner of the Pine House Cafe & Tavern, says her business depends on hiking and other recreation linked eagles and other birds near the proposed wind farm.

Source:  By Morgan Lee | San Diego Union-Tribune | Sept. 29, 2014 | www.utsandiego.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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