Conservation group sues Obama administration to protect eagles from wind turbines

BY Dina Cappiello, Associated Press  June 19, 2014 at 10:55 AM EDT
An AP investigation last year documented dozens of eagle deaths at wind farms. Photo by Gary Rothstein/NASA via Wikimedia Commons

An AP investigation last year documented dozens of eagle deaths at wind farms. Photo by Gary Rothstein/NASA via Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON — A conservation group says it’s suing the Obama administration over a new federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to seek approval to kill or injure eagles for 30 years.

The lawsuit from the American Bird Conservancy was expected to be filed Thursday in federal court in San Jose, California. A copy of the complaint was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The group argues that the rule, which extended by 25 years the length of time companies may kill or injure eagles without fear of prosecution, is illegal because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to evaluate the consequences and ensure it would not damage eagle populations. The Obama administration classified the rule as an administrative change, excluding it from a full environmental review.

“In the government’s rush to expand wind energy, shortcuts were taken in implementing this rule that should not have been allowed,” said Michael Hutchins, the national coordinator of the conservancy’s wind energy program.“In the government’s rush to expand wind energy, shortcuts were taken in implementing this rule that should not have been allowed,” said Michael Hutchins, the national coordinator of the conservancy’s wind energy program.

Under President Barack Obama, wind energy has exploded as a pollution-free energy source that can help reduce the gases blamed for global warming. But it is not without environmental costs.

An AP investigation last year documented dozens of eagle deaths at wind farms, findings later confirmed by federal biologists. Each one is a violation of federal law, but the Obama administration to date has prosecuted only one company, Duke Energy Corp., for killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming wind farms.

The wind energy industry sought the change to reduce its liability.

The industry said the rule helps protect eagles because in exchange for legal protection for the lifespan of wind farms and other projects, companies obtaining permits would be required to make efforts to avoid killing protected birds.

The permits would be reviewed every five years and adjusted if necessary. But the conservancy in its lawsuit claims those reviews would be internal, not subject to public input.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.

No wind energy company has obtained permission authorizing the killing, injuring or harassment of eagles, although five-year permits have been available since 2009. That has put the companies at legal risk and has discouraged private investment in renewable energy.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday it would not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.