BOWLING GREEN – When a wind turbine struck and killed a bald eagle at the city’s wind generation facility located west of town two years ago, there were eye-witnesses, the body was quickly recovered, and the cause of death was glaringly obvious.
It took the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service another year of investigation to tell us what we already knew – one of the wind turbine’s blades had smacked the eagle, severing its wing, and the impact resulted in the bird’s death.
“The wing was ripped off,” said Ohio Division of Wildlife officer ReidVan Cleve, who arrived about an hour later at the landfill site that is home to four wind turbines.
“It was definitely a turbine strike.”
Wind turbines and their propensity for taking down birds, bats, and bald eagles remain one of the primary sticking points in the lengthy debate and legal arm twisting over the proposed placement of six turbines nearly 500 feet tall in Lake Erie as the first phase of the Icebreaker Wind project. Avian biologists and bird conservation groups don’t want the fatality that occurred at the Bowling Green Landfill to be repeated hundreds or thousands of times out over the open water of the lake. There are also serious environmental concerns over what the construction work related to this project might do to the overall lake ecosystem.
Joel Merriman, the director of the Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign for the Washington D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy (ABC), said the Icebreaker Wind project would place these huge turbines, each taller than a 40-story building, right in the path of migrating songbirds, bats, water birds, and raptors that cross the lake.
“At its core, the location that was chosen for the project is absolutely inappropriate,” Merriman said. “This is a very important area for migratory birds – birds that migrate over the lake at night. The most important aspect of minimizing wind energy’s impact on birds is just putting turbines in the right place to begin with, and this is the wrong place.”
Icebreaker Wind would be the first offshore wind facility in the Great Lakes. The project’s concept was kick-started in 2009 with the formation of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCo), a non-profit, public-private partnership that arrived with the obligatory promises of jobs, clean air, and renewable energy. The engine behind the wind turbine project is Fred. Olsen Renewables, a Norwegian company.
Nearly five years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy approved a $40 million grant for construction of the six wind turbines, which would be located about eight miles offshore. Most of that money remains in limbo as a federal lawsuit filed two years ago by ABC and the Oak Harbor-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) works its way through the court system. The conservation groups contend that the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers have failed to properly evaluate the potential environmental impact of the project, saying that the “DOE has instead willfully ignored inconvenient data and shirked its obligations”.
Two condominium owners along the lakefront also have filed a legal challenge to the project, and The Lake Erie Foundation has filed briefs with the federal court to voice its concerns and objections related to the proposed Icebreaker operation since the six-turbine pilot project could lead to 1,500 or more wind turbines being placed in Lake Erie.
Jim Stouffer, the Lake Erie Foundation board president, said the group shares the primary concerns that ABC and BSBO have outlined over the past decade – the lack of a thorough environmental impact study to examine the potential effect on wildlife, the possible degradation of the lake water and habitat, and the likely proliferation of lake-based wind turbines if the pilot project moves forward without appropriate research.
“We’ve been involved in Lake Erie issues for a long time, and with this project we believe strongly that an environmental impact study should be conducted before anything moves forward,” Stouffer said.
Beyond the potential loss of many birds and bats to the array of 200-foot-long whirring turbine blades, the foundation has specific concerns about the disruption to the lake floor and how major construction projects would exacerbate the lake’s chronic environmental problems.
“There are a lot of legacy issues out in the lake, with phosphorus and heavy metals and other caustic materials. If we stir up the bottom of the lake, it is hard to imagine that not having a very negative impact,” Stouffer said. “We have come so far since the Cuyahoga River fire and we’ve made a lot of headway with pollution issues and now we’re battling algal blooms. The bottom line is that Lake Erie should not be the Petrie dish for this kind of project.”
The Lake Erie Foundation has also laid out its concerns about the expected proliferation of wind turbines in the lake if this pilot project moves forward.
Stouffer said he would expect to see hundreds of wind turbines placed in the Western Basin and around the Lake Erie Islands.
“If you peel back the onion, you are looking at potentially 75 square miles of wind farm out in the lake,” he said. “We are sensitive to all of the issues involved with Icebreaker, the magnitude of the decisions that are made relative to this project, and the real cost of it. The upside has always been stressed by those promoting this, but the potential downside has not been brought out in the light of day. There has been a lack of transparency with the facts.”
That position is shared by Mark Shieldcastle, research director at Black Swamp Bird Observatory and a retired avian biologist who spent more than 30 years with the Ohio Division of Wildlife specializing in avian research.
Shieldcastle has long contended that Icebreaker has not done the proper studies that would be required to determine the potential impact the project might have on birds and the lake.
“They are putting on a full-court press publicly to get some funding, but despite what Icebreaker is saying, everything is not in line,” he said, adding that pre-construction radar work out on the lake and developing an apparatus for post-construction monitoring of the site’s impact on wildlife have not been addressed.
Email and phone messages sent to LeedCo president Dave Karpinski seeking comment on the status of the project were not returned. Shieldcastle said BSBO is working with Ohio State University on a telemetry study that he expects will provide a “much better picture” of when birds are crossing the lake, which he considers vitally important data.
“Before a project of this size and importance, you need to have a detailed environmental impact study, not a cursory assessment like they have done,” he said. “You need to collect sound science and then see where the data takes us. We are not against wind power – it is all about the siting – and with sound science and transparency you would have a much better handle on what is good, safe siting of wind turbines.”
Shieldcastle said his decades of experience working along the lake have convinced him that many birds and bats are crossing the lake and that bats could be impacted significantly. Bats, including the endangered Indiana bat, have been found dead at the Blue Creek Wind Farm, a 152-turbine project spread out over 27,000 acres in western Ohio. A request sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking information on how many bats have been killed at the facility was not met.
Cleveland.com reported there is $37 million left of the Department of Energy grant LEEDCo received and that the federal government has extended the grant while LEEDCo seeks the significant additional funding it will need to bring the project together.
Chris Aichholz, a leader in the grassroots Seneca Anti-Wind Union group that successfully fought the installation of a large array of wind turbines nearly 600-feet tall in rural Seneca County, said the funding for these projects should always be examined closely.
“Their plans are usually half-baked and poorly researched, but money is always the driver and whether it is grants or subsidies, it’s our tax money and it’s coming out of our pockets,” he said. “They claim these projects will be great for jobs and schools and the economy, but that’s not true. They are salesmen – that’s what they do best.”
Shieldcastle continues to insist on the need for better research before any such wind energy project begins construction.
“We know these turbines are going to kill some birds and bats, but at what level – that is one of the big unknowns,” he said. “The studies they have relied on so far are just insufficient, faulty, and inaccurate. We have found multiple places where they have underestimated the potential mortality, and that is not acceptable science.”
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