An American wind energy company has admitted to killing at least 150 bald and golden eagles, most of which were fatally struck by wind turbine blades, federal prosecutors said.
ESI Energy pleaded guilty Tuesday to three counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) after eagles died at three of its facilities in Wyoming and New Mexico, according to a statement from the Justice Department.
The MBTA prohibits killing, capturing or transporting protected migratory bird species without a permit.
“For more than a decade, ESI has violated those laws, taking eagles without obtaining or even seeking the necessary permit,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in the statement.
As part of a plea agreement, ESI was sentenced to more than $8 million in fines and restitution and five years of probation. The company has also agreed to implement up to $27 million in measures to minimize future eagle injuries and deaths, the prosecutors said without detailing what that would entail.
Prosecutors said ESI will pay $29,623 for each bald or golden eagle killed by its turbine blades in the future.
The company has three years to apply for permits for any unavoidable killing of eagles, according to the statement.
Court documents show that in March 2019, shortly after ESI decided to build wind power facilities in Converse County, Wyo., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that there was an “unusually high number” of golden-eagle nests in the area and discouraged the build, noting that up to 44 golden eagles and 23 bald eagles could collide with a turbine blade within the first five years.
ESI moved forward with the build, court records said.
ESI has since acknowledged that at least 150 bald and golden eagles have died at 50 of its 154 wind farms over the past decade and that 136 of the deaths occurred when the birds flew into a turbine blade, prosecutors said.
Rebecca Kujawa, president of ESI parent NextEra, criticized the government’s enforcement policy, saying some animal deaths are “unavoidable” with wind turbines.
“The reality is building any structure, driving any vehicle, or flying any airplane carries with it a possibility that accidental eagle and other bird collisions may occur as a result of that activity,” Kujawa said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, the federal government, at odds with many states and a number of federal court decisions, has sought to criminalize unavoidable accidents related to collisions of birds into wind turbines while at the same time failing to address other activities that result in far greater numbers of accidental eagle and other bird mortalities.”
ESI and NextEra did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Saturday.
The bald eagle, which has been the national bird in the United States since the late 1700s, was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. But it still faces a number of threats and remains protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Such threats include collisions with man-made structures and vehicles, poisoning, electrocution and illegal shooting, among other things, the agency said.
Wind turbines are a known killer of numerous species of birds, including eagles. At their tips, the blades can spin up to 200 mph. Research shows that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are killed each year at monopole turbines in the United States, with an increase risk of death the higher the turbines.
In 2017, a group at Oregon State University announced that it was working to make wind turbines safer for eagles, using cameras to determine whether one is approaching the blades and, if so, triggering a deterrent using brightly colored facsimiles of people to make them go the other way.
“If we strike a generic bird, sad as that is, it’s not as critical as striking a protected golden eagle,” Roberto Albertani, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, said in a statement at the time. That, he said, “would cause the shutdown of a wind farm for a period of time, a fine to the operator, big losses in revenue, and most important the loss of a member of a protected species.”
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