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Wind Power vs. Bald Eagles

ESI Energy penalized for over 150 aviary deaths from turbine blades

It can make for an exhausting debate when the things that are supposed to be helping the environment end up hurting another part of the environment. With wind turbines and bird endangerment, the issue persists, in another chapter of the Bird Law saga.

ESI Energy, a wind power farm operator, pled guilty Tuesday to three counts of violating the MBTA (Migratory Bird Treaty Act), incurring federal penalties of probation and $8 million in fines, for the deaths of bald eagles caused by its turbine blades, according to a judge's sentencing in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Each penalty was "based on the documented deaths of golden eagles due to blunt force trauma from being struck by a wind turbine blade at a particular facility in Wyoming or New Mexico, where ESI had not applied for the necessary permits," according to the DOJ.

ESI, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, further acknowledged that at least 150 bald and golden eagles have died in total since 2012, across 50 of its 154 wind energy facilities. 136 of those deaths have been affirmatively determined to be attributable to the eagle being struck by a wind turbine blade.

Due to the rarity and American symbolism of bald eagles, the case puts a renewed spotlight on aviary deaths, a longstanding problem within the wind power industry. We've reported on several localized debates on the subject over the past ten years. Turbine manufacturers have tried to combat the problem with solutions such as painting turbines black. In fact, a Connecticut solar developer just last week protested the construction of further offshore wind farms near his home solely on the basis of bird migration:

NextEra, for its part, issued a lengthy and defensive response disagreeing with the DOJ's decision and regulations, taking time to highlight its own prominent environmental track record:

"We disagree with the government's underlying enforcement policy, which under most circumstances makes building and operating a wind farm into which certain birds may accidentally fly a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) – even when the wind farm was developed and sited in a way that sought to avoid avian wildlife collisions...We have a long-standing and well-earned reputation for protecting our environment and positively co-existing with and supporting wildlife around our facilities, and we have never sited a wind turbine knowing an eagle would fly into it nor have we taken any action in disregard of federal law."

The court sentenced ESI, pursuant to a plea agreement, to a fine of $1,861,600, restitution in the amount of $6,210,991, and a five-year period of probation during which it must follow an Eagle Management Plan (EMP). The EMP requires implementation of up to $27 million (during the period of probation; more thereafter if a written extension is signed) of measures intended to minimize additional eagle deaths and injuries, and payment of compensatory mitigation for future eagle deaths and injuries of $29,623 per bald or golden eagle. ESI also must over the next 36 months apply for permits for any unavoidable take of eagles at each of 50 of its facilities where take is documented or, in the case of four facilities not yet operational, predicted.

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