Conservationists filed suit Wednesday to block the start of Maryland's first industrial wind project, contending the turbines built atop the state's highest mountain in Garrett County threaten to harm federally protected rare bats.
Making good on a threat issued months ago, two groups — Save Western Maryland and the Maryland Conservation Council — and two individuals brought suit against Constellation Energy in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, contending that its wind turbines will "almost certainly" injure or kill Indiana bats, which are so few in number that they are legally protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit comes as Constellation prepares to start generating power in the next several days from its Criterion wind project — 28 turbines that stand 415 feet high when their blades are at maximum skyward extension.
Eric Robison, co-founder of Save Western Maryland, a group formed in Garrett County to voice concerns about wind and other energy projects, said the turbines shouldn't be allowed to start spinning until Constellation obtains an "incidental take permit" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for any Indiana bats that might be hit or injured by the blades.
The small brownish-black mammals range across much of the eastern United States, but their population is so low and thinly spread that federal officials consider them at risk of extinction. Listening equipment Constellation set up while building the turbines this year detected calls of Indiana bats. The lawsuit contends that there is a "robust population" of Indiana bats that hibernates in a cave 13 miles from the project site.
"They've claimed that they're very good corporate citizens, and that they were looking to be environmentally sound in their practices," said Robison, who lives on the mountain near the Constellation wind project and another set of turbines built nearby. The suit was meant to "press" Constellation to follow through with its public pledge to get the federal permit, he said.
Kevin Thornton, a spokesman for Constellation, said the company has consulted with federal wildlife officials and is in the process of applying for the permit. A study is being done now of what harm the turbines might do to the endangered bats, he said, and Constellation hopes to have federal approval by spring.
Thornton said company executives have not seen the suit, so they could not comment on it.
A similar lawsuit brought in the same Greenbelt court forced developers of a West Virginia wind project to scale back the number of turbines they planned to build after the judge ruled that Indiana bats hibernating in the area almost certainly would be harmed by the blades. The West Virginia developer also agreed not to operate the turbines at night or at times of year when the bats would be flying until it obtained federal permits.
Leopoldo Miranda, supervisor of the wildlife service's Chesapeake field office in Annapolis, said it's too early to say what, if any, limitations might be put on the operations of Constellation's turbines. Though endangered bats have been detected near the turbines, the numbers flying through the area do not appear to be as great as in the West Virginia case, Miranda said. But he added that if government biologists conclude the turbines could harm protected bats, Constellation likely would be required to compensate or mitigate for those losses in some way.
Robison said a similar lawsuit is likely to be filed soon to block another industrial wind project on Backbone Mountain constructed by Synergics Wind of Annapolis. Unlike Constellation, Synergics has maintained that there are no endangered bats in the vicinity of its 20 turbines a short distance away, so the company does not intend to seek a federal permit in case any might be harmed.