Eastern Shore wind project confronts eagles, Navy

Proposed turbines face concerns over bird deaths, radar interference

  • Paul Harris, left, and Adam Cohen walk on the site of a planned wind turbine in Somerset County.
Paul Harris, left, and Adam Cohen walk on the site of a planned… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
April 28, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

PRINCESS ANNE — A wind power project proposed on the lower Eastern Shore that's struggling to overcome objections from the Navy has a new, airborne worry — bald eagles.

Federal wildlife biologists say the population of the once-rare national bird has grown so much that there are about 400 bald eagles along the mid-Atlantic coast, including 30 nests within 10 miles of the project in Somerset County, and three in the immediate vicinity.

Declaring the area "extremely attractive" to the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned the developer of the Great Bay wind project that it "appears to present significant risk to eagles" and urged it to scale back its plans.

The agency estimated that the original plan to put up 60 turbines east of Princess Anne could kill up to 43 eagles a year. The developer's experts disputed that, projecting deaths of 15 to 18 birds annually, but the agency said even that lower rate would result in more eagle deaths than any other wind project proposed nationwide.

"We can't stop a project; that's not really what we're interested in," said Sarah Nystrom, eagle coordinator for the wildlife service's Northeast regional office in Hadley, Mass. "But we will say, 'Hey, there's a lot of risk here, and it's not in your interest to proceed.'"

Adam Cohen, vice president of development for Pioneer Green Energy, the Austin, Texas-based company planning the Somerset wind project, contended the risks of eagles being killed by turbines are minimal. But the company has scaled back to 50 turbines and agreed to build them in two phases.

"The more turbines you get out there, the better the economics of the project," Cohen said. But, he added, "we want to make sure we're doing this as responsibly as we can."

The wind energy project already has faced criticism from Navy officials, who warn that the turbine's rotating blades would interfere with radar used at Naval Air Station Patuxent River across the bay in St. Mary's County. That issue still is being debated on the state and federal levels.

In danger of extinction 40 years ago because of habitat loss, illegal hunting and contamination with the pesticide DDT, the nation's bald eagle population has rebounded so well under federal protections the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.

While no longer facing extinction, eagles still are protected from harm by federal law. Violators face civil penalties of up to $5,000 and one year in jail, and authorities may seek criminal prosecution, with a maximum sentence of two years in prison or fine of $250,000.

Wind projects that pose a significant risk to protected species can apply for federal approval of a so-called "incidental take," or occasional death, of the animals. But developers must show they've taken precautions to avoid or minimize the risks, and they are expected to propose conservation measures to mitigate any harm they might cause.

Nystrom said there haven't been many reports of bald eagles being hit by wind turbines, which may indicate that threats to the birds are not so significant, or that there just haven't been many wind projects built in bald eagle territory. The federal agency based its estimate of turbine-related deaths on what's been seen with golden eagles elsewhere in the country, which she acknowledged may not be comparable.

"We'd rather make an error on the conservative side," she said. "If the take's actually higher than we predicted, you either have to shut turbines down or put in place other minimization measures at the last minute."

Cohen said Pioneer Green Energy already had planned to build its turbines away from the water, steering clear of state regulations on development along the shore of the bay and its tributaries. Eagles tend to frequent the waterfront. The project's layout has been tweaked, he said, to increase distance between turbines and known eagle nests.

The problem, Nystrom said, is that biologists don't know how big a buffer is needed for bald eagles, which can roam over thousands of acres to find food.

Biologists also have suggested the wind developers could reduce the risk of eagles flying near turbines by reducing available food sources around the structures, such as road kill or other dead animals.

"Eagles are kind of opportunistic – they'll feed on what's available," Nystrom said. The Shore's many poultry farms also may attract eagles, she said, when growers toss their dead chickens in open manure storage sheds.

Cohen said the company is looking to work with farmers on ways to compost their dead birds..

"I think we've done everything we can to address their concerns," Cohen said.

While saying his company wants to do the right thing environmentally, Cohen argued that bald eagles face a greater threat from rising sea level reducing habitat. Wind energy can help by reducing reliance on climate-warming fossil fuels, he said.

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