A wind farm operator donated more than $25,000 to three Alameda County supervisors who ignored strong environmental opposition and voted to allow the company to continue operating Altamont Pass turbines that have been blamed for scores of bird deaths.
Altamont Winds has been a significant donor to Supervisor Scott Haggerty, and to a lesser extent Nate Miley and Richard Valle, according to campaign contribution records.
Haggerty, Valle and Miley on March 24 voted in favor of extending the company’s permit until 2018 in a controversial 3-2 decision. Estimates suggest the company’s outdated windmills will kill thousands of birds over that period.
Miley now says he wants to revisit the issue.
Haggerty, whose district covers the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, vehemently denied that the campaign funds had anything to do with his vote.
“I’ve voted on a lot of stuff over my career as a county supervisor, and never once has it ever been influenced by how much money a (company) has given me,” Haggerty said.
He said his decision was swayed most by the need for clean energy, maintaining local jobs and helping ranchers keep their lands through leases with the wind companies.
Miley said the money had no influence over his decision either, and that he gave the company the “benefit of the doubt” on its claims that birds are dying from other causes.
Haggerty received a total of $19,750 from Altamont Winds for campaigns in 2008, 2012 and 2016, including $5,000 for his 2016 run for re-election. Miley received $5,306 in increasing amounts since 2006, including $2,325 for his 2016 re-election. Valle accepted $764 from the company in 2013.
Supervisor Keith Carson, who voted against the appeal, received $2,500 from Altamont Winds for his 2009 campaign, and $250 for his 2006 run. Wilma Chan, the other no vote, did not take any contributions from the company, according to county records.
Opponents blast vote
The supervisors’ vote was slammed by opponents such as Audubon California and the East Bay Regional Park District. They say the extension means three more years of disastrous effects on the golden eagle population, which has seen a massive decline since turbines were first installed in the Altamont Pass in the 1980s.
Miley said he relied on the company’s report – not the county’s official numbers – about bird deaths and expects the county will be sued over the decision.
“I’d be willing to sit down and hear from these researchers and have them give me their concrete information around why they feel the information we received from AWI is erroneous,” he said. “Maybe I just needed to have done more homework.”
Valle could not be reached for comment.
Altamont Winds, along with other wind energy companies, has been told to replace outdated turbines with newer turbines the county says would reduce eagle deaths by up to 80 percent. Altamont Winds says its needs three more years to accomplish that and sought an extension until 2018 because it needed the revenue to fund the project and prevent layoffs.
Carson said he believed the company has had plenty of time to meet the same obligations as the other operators who have committed to replacing all their older-generation turbines by October of this year. “The owners of the wind farm do make a lot of money, and they need to stand up to their obligations in a timely manner as their competitors did.”
Unions lobby hard
Carson said he didn’t think the votes were based on campaign contributions but did say there was hard lobbying by unions to approve the deal. The Boilermaker-Blacksmith National Pension Trust is heavily invested in Altamont Winds, according to company President Rick Koebbe.
The county estimates that 4,620 birds died on average each year in the Altamont area from 2005 through 2011, including 768 raptors – golden eagles, American kestrels, burrowing owls and red-tailed hawks. Officials say there’s no way to tell how many deaths were directly related to turbine collisions but say the single-biggest contributing factor is birds striking the turbines.
According to a recent environmental report prepared by the county for the Altamont Winds extension, the company’s turbines could kill more than 300 raptors over the next three years, including up to 15 golden eagles, 82 red-tailed hawks, 108 American kestrels and 142 burrowing owls.
Koebbe called the county’s numbers flat out wrong and said birds also die from other causes, such as from eating poisoned squirrels.
“Our turbines don’t kill birds,” he said. “The birds accidentally run into the turbines. I don’t care if the scientists disagree.”
Koebbe refused to answer specific questions related to the company’s campaign contributions.
“There’s nothing wrong with donating to campaigns,” Koebbe said. “There’s nothing tied from donating to votes; that’s ridiculous. It’s illegal. There’s no reason to talk about it.”
Economy over science
Audubon California’s director of public policy, Mike Lynes, said he believed supervisors disregarded science in favor of economic considerations and bowed to pressure from labor unions.
“It’s clear that Alameda County cannot be relied upon to live up to its own statements about what it’s going to do to protect birds while it provides wind energy in the Altamont,” Lynes said.
Dr. Shawn Smallwood, an independent researcher from UC Davis who has counted dead birds for Altamont Winds and the Scientific Review Committee, a five-member team that reviews bird deaths and makes recommendations to the county, said he was baffled by the decision. He estimated the decision would cause 10 golden eagle deaths per year.
“Of course the wind turbines are killing a lot of birds out there,” Smallwood said. “It’s just preposterous to propose that the mortality caused by background factors is significant. Most of the birds we find dead in the Altamont are from wind turbines.”
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