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Barn owl halts turbine project

The barn owl has done what no anti-wind turbine protester in Port Ryerse has been able to do to date: halt construction of a green energy project in their village.

A woman walking her dog this summer spotted one of the birds – they are on the endangered species list in Ontario – flying into a barn.

An investigation ensued, photographs of the owl perched on a woodpile were taken, and the sighting was confirmed. The evidence was then presented to an environmental review tribunal hearing, which last week slapped a five-month moratorium on the project.

Boralex, the company that wants to construct a four-turbine 10-megawatt wind farm next to Lake Erie, must now apply to the Ontario government for what’s known as an “overall benefit permit” if it wants to continue with the project.

It must submit an amended plan showing how the wind farm will avoid having a negative impact on the owls and that it has explored alternative sites. It must also show it will do something to help the birds, such as creating new habitat.

The tribunal hearing has been adjourned until March 31.

The Port Ryerse case is the first time a project in Ontario has been ordered back to the drawing board due to the presence of barn owls.

As a result, “there are a number of unknowns right now that will take some work and some time to bring to a conclusion,” Sylvia Davis, legal counsel for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, wrote in an email to the parties to the hearing.

The barn owl is so rare there have only been four confirmed nesting sites in the province in the past decade and maybe a dozen or more confirmed sightings, said Bernie Solymar, a member of the Ontario Barn Owl Recovery Team who happens to live in Port Ryerse.

Boralex said it is has not given up on the wind farm and is “working diligently” with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to meet environmental standards for the project. In an email to the Reformer, the company added “it would be premature to suggest specific outcomes at this stage.”

Residents have strongly and loudly opposed the project, slated to go on farmland east of their quaint lakeside village, warning it will hurt property values, ruin their quality of life, and possibly damage their health.

They will oppose any alternatives Boralex comes up with, said Port Ryerse resident Suzanne Andrews, who was given intervener status at the hearing.

“They’ve chosen the wrong place,” Andrews said in an interview. “We are on the leading edge of the Long Point Bay biosphere. We are full of plant and wildlife.”

Andrews said construction roads will disrupt other wildlife. When they cut across ditches, the roads will block the migration path of turtles as well as small creatures such as voles that raptors feed on.

Andrews said she is opposed to wind turbines on any grounds and believes their carbon footprints are too large for them to do any good for the environment.

“They don’t belong anywhere,” she said. “They’re useless . . . It’s an absolute travesty of our tax dollars.”