Wind as new avian villain

Threat: Giant industrial turbines promoted as a cure for global warming are going up on Appalachian ridges that are a major migratory route for songbirds and bats.

December 14, 2003|By Ajax Eastman | Ajax Eastman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MORE THAN 40 years ago, in her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson saved many species of birds from extinction by exposing the threat of DDT. At the time DDT was promoted as a miracle cure for pesky insects that caused diseases and reduced food/fiber production.

Thanks to Carson, DDT was shown to cause far greater problems, and the cure was banned.

Now a new threat to avian species that are already suffering from habitat loss and predation is emerging - industrial wind turbines, which many are promoting as a "cure" for global warming.

This new threat to avian communities is because of birds' collisions with the towers, which are up to 450 feet tall, and the fast-turning blades approaching speeds of 180 mph at the blade tips of gigantic turbines proposed for ridges of the Appalachian chain.

These mountain ridges are documented as a major migratory route for songbirds and bats. Some of those migratory species are on the threatened and endangered species list and should be protected under migratory bird treaties.

In the spring, the largest-ever bird kill occurred at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, just over the Maryland line in West Virginia. And more than 2,500 bats likely died this fall at the facility.

Many people think of bats as scary, possibly rabid creatures. But the fact is bats are economically and ecologically important for controlling insect populations that feed on forests and humans. A bat can eat 600 mosquitoes an hour, and so may help to reduce the need for pesticides and control spread of diseases like West Nile virus.

The potential for huge bird and bat kills is staggering given the fact that tens of thousands of wind turbines could be placed throughout the Appalachian flyway in the future. If 20 percent of our country's electricity were to come from wind power by 2030, it would require more than 400,000 wind turbines.

While there should be no doubt that Earth is warming and fossil fuels are polluting the air, studies show that wind energy will not halt or even appreciably slow this trend - especially from projects in the relatively wind-poor eastern United States.

The Sunday Sun article "Farming wind in Western Md." seemed more like a public relations piece for the wind-power industry, replete with photographs, than a thorough or balanced piece of journalism. Of almost two pages devoted to the promotion of wind power in Maryland, just one tiny paragraph addressed "environmentalists concerns over aesthetics, noise, and migrating birds which are sometimes killed when they fly into the rotors."

State by state, the industry with sweetheart tax breaks is amassing a string of windmills all along this major migratory route. The potential cumulative impacts are never considered when sold to each state.

Wind as a renewable energy is a seductive alternative, albeit minor contributor, in weaning Americans from fossil fuels. However, the precautionary principle must be applied when evaluating any industrial facility. Sadly, that caution is being thrown to the wind - literally - in the rush to approve inadequately evaluated and poorly placed wind-power projects.

Wind power also is destructive to the forest habitat. For example, a swath 100 meters wide was bulldozed through mostly mature forest to accommodate the 44 turbines strung along four miles on the crest of Backbone Mountain in West Virginia. This hardly seems like the "green energy" envisioned by well-intentioned power consumers.

Instead of sacrificing our wildlife and the scenic attractiveness that is the economic wellspring of rural communities, our politicians first should require some reduction of our region's profligate energy consumption.

The Clipper Windpower Inc. project featured in The Sunday Sun on Nov. 9 will reap federal tax shelter benefits of about $150 million for a facility costing about $100 million. If this huge tax subsidy were instead used to encourage energy conservation, a far larger benefit in reducing air pollution and climate change would result.

During the next session of the General Assembly legislators will be considering bills that support the construction of thousands more wind turbines along mountaintops, coastlines and the Chesapeake Bay - all with little consideration of their environmental impact. Strong language needs to be included to ensure that coming years do not become "silent springs."

Ajax Eastman, an environmental activist, lives in Baltimore.

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