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Migratory birds are latest issue in Somerset wind power controversy

SOMERSET – The damage wind turbines might do to migratory birds is the latest area of controversy in the Somerset wind power debate, but the developer says the dispute is, well, for the birds.

The American Bird Conservancy has listed Lighthouse Wind, the project proposed near the Lake Ontario shoreline by Apex Clean Energy, among the nation’s 10 worst-sited wind projects, either existing or proposed, in terms of its effect on birds.

The group’s report claimed that the Somerset-Yates project would interfere with migratory songbirds and raptors, which “concentrate within six miles of the shoreline during spring and fall of each year.” Also, it would be built “close to breeding habitat for declining grassland birds,” which could be displaced, the conservation group claimed.

Dave Phillips, Apex director of wildlife and environmental permitting, responded that the company is conducting studies on the project’s impact on birds and bats to evaluate the risk to those species.

“It is a common misconception presented by ABC and others that the mere presence of birds equates to risk,” Phillips said. “Lighthouse Wind will rely on the facts resulting from careful study, as well as input from agencies and stakeholders, rather than prejudicial comments unsupported by fact, such as those presented by ABC.”

A new angle on the bird issue surfaced Tuesday, as a lawyer for the Town of Somerset demanded that the town’s “avian expert,” Bill Evans of Ithaca, be included in a meeting reportedly scheduled Wednesday at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Buffalo office between staffers for the DEC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Apex.

“We may be filing motions to have this meeting delayed until we can be heard,” Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said.

Apex, a Virginia company, wants to erect as many as 70 wind turbines, each as much as 620 feet tall counting the length of the propeller blades, in Somerset and the adjoining Orleans County Town of Yates.

Engert released a letter blasting Apex and the DEC, written by Mark C. Davis, co-counsel to former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, who is representing Somerset in its effort to stop the project.

Engert said Evans, the bird expert, was tipped off about the meeting by a source within the DEC.

Davis sent an email Monday to James A. Muscato II, an Albany lawyer representing Apex, and sought the town’s inclusion. He followed up with a letter opposing the position of DEC attorney Lawrence Weintraub, who said Evans wouldn’t be allowed in Wednesday’s meeting.

Engert released an email exchange between Davis and Muscato, in which Davis accused the Apex lawyer of not responding to previous requests for Somerset’s inclusion in such meetings. Muscato replied that Weintraub deemed Wednesday’s gathering “a technical session between the company and the biologists, and not a formal Article 10 meeting regarding stipulations of potential settlement of issues.”

Article 10 is the section of the state Public Service Law that governs wind power projects. It was added to the law five years ago and placed the final decision on such projects in the hands of a siting board dominated by state officials, instead of allowing local governments to rule.

Engert said, “This whole Article 10 is rigged to streamline these projects and push this renewable agenda the governor is promoting.”

Davis’ letter accused Apex of failing to comply with Article 10 or accompanying regulations regarding public participation. Muscato said in his email that Apex “previously involved the Town of Somerset in meetings regarding the project in accordance with our approved plan, and will comply with Article 10’s requirements in this regard.”