REPUBLIC, Ohio – Some property owners and residents in Seneca, Sandusky, Huron, and Erie counties have challenged the proposed introduction of huge wind turbines near their homes, citing the degradation of the rural landscape that attracted them to the country in the first place.
In their protracted legal and public relations battle with wind energy companies based out of state, the rural folk have also called into question the uncertainty over health risks associated with long-term exposure to the flicker created by the turbine blades and the constant hum they emit.
Another serious concern they have raised involves any potential failure of the turbines that could result in the loss of blades, fires in the gearbox, or the breakdown of the tower. These issues are very rare, but recent turbine collapses in New Mexico and Nebraska have not alleviated those fears. They also worry over what negative impact a horizon stacked with wind turbines could have on their property values.
But as the grassroots groups battling the Northwest Ohio wind farm projects continue to wade through a swamp of uncertainty as they deal with attorneys, politicians, lobbyists and the Ohio Power Siting Board, which regulates the siting of wind farms, their strongest ally might turn out to be a scavenger whose persona affords it an almost saintly aura – the bald eagle.
The bald eagle was named the national symbol of the United States by the Second Continental Congress in June of 1782, lauded for its strength, power, majestic appearance, and its long life. Besides its commanding physical presence and appearance, for many the bald eagle symbolizes freedom, a commodity as important today to these rural residents as it was when the foundation of a new nation was put in place.
Bald eagles have been revered and protected for more than a century, but after flirting with extinction in the Lower 48 due to the loss of habitat, the use of pesticides that ruined the shells of their eggs, and illegal hunting, Ohio’s bald eagle population plummeted to just four nesting pairs in 1979.
“Those four nests were all in the Lake Erie marshes, and none of them were producing young,” said Mark Shieldcastle, a retired avian biologist from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources who has made the study of the birds and bald eagles of the region his life’s work.
But with additional protection from federal and state authorities, the ban on the use of DDT, and increased awareness of the bald eagle’s need for habitat and nesting areas, the population rebounded in an unexpected manner and recent surveys indicate around 350 nesting pairs in the Buckeye State. Many of those nests are producing the mottled-brown-colored young eagles that don’t develop the distinctive white head until four or five years old.
As their numbers have grown, Ohio’s bald eagles have expanded their nesting range, moving inland along river corridors and into the agricultural belt that includes the counties where Apex Clean Energy plans to install its Republic Wind and Emerson Creek Wind projects, and where sPower recently announced the suspension of its efforts to move forward with its Seneca Wind venture.
Although the numbers have jumped around as the legal wrangling of proposals and amended proposals, motions and counter-motions, and hearings and dueling expert testimonies have filled the docket, the Republic Wind project currently calls for wind turbines that will stretch just over 600 feet high, taller than the Washington Monument. The Emerson Creek project wind turbines will surpass 650 feet in height.
Apex also has at least two additional wind turbine projects planned in this same corridor that stretches due south of Sandusky Bay – the Honey Creek Wind development in Crawford and Seneca counties with a 2023 date posted, and the Emerson West Wind project in Seneca County slated for 2024.
The positioning of so many of these tall structures, which will loom hundreds of feet above the highest trees in the region, has Shieldcastle and many of the residents of the area where the proposed wind turbines would sit voicing concern. One of the eagle’s nests is located in the middle of the proposed Republic wind turbine array, he said.
“I never saw a bald eagle until I was an adult, and since we almost lost them, there’s just something special about having bald eagles around,” said Deb Hay, who lives in the Republic Wind project’s footprint.
“Now, there’s a lot of eagle activity in this area. I know of one active nest near my home and there are six turbine sites proposed within two-and-a-half miles of it. Eagles fly all over looking for food, so they will definitely come in contact with any wind turbines that go up here.”
Bald eagles, which were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 but are still shielded by several layers of strict regulations, build massive nests that can reach 10 feet in width and weigh more than a ton. The eagles mate for life and have strong nest site fidelity, usually returning to the same nest year after year.
They are also territorial, and the size of their territory varies depending on the availability of food sources. Shieldcastle said that while the nests along the Lake Erie shoreline are relatively close to each other due to the abundance of fish there, bald eagles can roam for miles from their inland nests while searching for the next meal, often roadkill.
“You can figure that they are extending out in all directions from their nests,” Shieldcastle said. “And since this is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state as far as eagle populations go, I can see large groups of turbines as potentially coming into play.”
Laura Kearns, the ODNR biologist who oversees eagle research for the state, did not comment on the specifics of the Republic and Emerson wind turbine projects but indicated that in general there is the potential for bald eagles to collide with tall structures.
“Bald eagles are doing very well in Ohio, but there are always concerns about potential threats, such as lead poisoning, and collisions with power lines, vehicles, wind turbines, and cell towers. There are a number of human-made structures they can run into.”
Greg Smith, a lifelong resident of rural Seneca County and an active member of the Seneca Anti-Wind Union citizens group who has given testimony on the wind turbine issue at the statehouse, said if the sPower project had gone through as proposed, there would have been 16 of the towers within a mile of his house. He shares the perspective of those who feel the bald eagles in the area are in the crosshairs of these wind farms and their towering structures.
“I personally know of 15 eagle’s nests in Seneca County alone, and I’m sure I haven’t accounted for them all,” Smith said. “One of our supporting landowners who has had a nest on their property for years told me that he has seen 23 eagles at one time on a carcass. I think we have more eagles in the area than what people realize.”
Drew Christensen, the Minnesota-based public engagement manager for the Apex projects in Ohio, said recent advancements in technology have allowed the company to reduce the number of turbines proposed for the Republic project to between 35 and 47 turbines that would stand 601 feet tall. The Emerson Creek wind turbine project currently calls for 52 to 71 wind turbines that will stand 655 feet tall.
“And all of the surveys required by the state have been completed,” Christensen said, concerning the bald eagle issue. He added that those surveys have been submitted to the state power siting board as part of the application process. A decision on the project from that entity could come in the next few months.
Hay, who said there are bald eagle sightings nearly every day near her home, is skeptical about the results Apex claims its studies at other wind turbine sites have provided, indicating a minimal impact. She believes the proposed turbines would kill many bats and songbirds migrating at night, as well as bald eagles.
“Their studies have been done in too small of a radius since these turbines could knock a bird quite a ways. They’ve also done their studies during the day, and they don’t use dogs to find the carcasses,” she said. “They cherry-pick their studies, but there’s no question these turbines will impact the birds.”
Shieldcastle, who now serves as the research director at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, concurred.
“What they have done in their studies is inadequate to make decisions on where these wind turbines should be located,” he said. “The protocols they followed were developed for golden eagles out west, where the nests are very sparse. Republic has made every attempt to marginalize us, and they have not addressed the questions specific to this area.”
Crystal Hoepf said her family moved out in the country a few miles from the village of Republic in order to enjoy the quiet, the landscape and the wildlife.
“If we wanted to be surrounded by tall structures, we’d live in the city,” she said. “Some people like that, but we live out here to get away from that and enjoy the wildlife. We don’t want to lose what is so important to us – the quality of life out here.”
Hoepf sees the bald eagles of the area as one part of the broad wildlife picture, since Canada geese, white-tailed deer and many species of birds are also sighted often, and this past summer the tree line by her home was covered with thousands of migrating monarch butterflies.
“We are a small farming community, so I’m not sure how you beat these large companies with all of their lawyers and all of their money, but maybe the bald eagles will help. We are hesitant to get too excited, because a lot of it depends on whether the Ohio Power Siting board cares enough about the bald eagles.”
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