PROTECTING BIRDS OF PREY AT ALTAMONT PASS
Using alternative energy sources like clean wind energy is essential to reducing our impact on the environment. The industrialized world’s addiction to fossil fuels is causing irreversible climate change, altering ecosystems and destroying biodiversity; developing clean wind energy as an alternative to fossil-fuel power plants can help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, wind farms can protect wildlife habitat by providing an alternative to the impacts of oil, gas and coal extraction.
However, the poorly sited Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California’s eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties kills thousands of birds through collisions with turbines and electrocution on power lines. Located on a major bird migratory route in an area with large concentrations of raptors — including the highest density of breeding golden eagles in the world — Altamont Pass is the most lethal wind farm in North America for birds of prey, causing massive kills of hawks, burrowing owls, falcons, eagles and other species. Most Altamont energy companies continue to use antiquated turbines that are poorly placed, inefficient and a high risk to birds.
Research by raptor experts for the California Energy Commission indicates that the facility’s turbines kill more than 1,000 birds of prey from 40 different species each year, violating federal and state wildlife protection laws such as the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and several California Fish and Game Code provisions. According to wind-industry reports, the fiasco at Altamont Pass has also hampered wind power development as unresolved concerns about impacts on birds cause other wind facilities’ construction to be delayed or operations to be discontinued.
We can have wind energy without decimating imperiled wildlife populations. Potential sites for new wind-energy projects should be reviewed for bird abundance, migration and use patterns, and wind farms should be designed and operated to prevent or minimize bird mortality. Where existing facilities have adverse impacts on birds, the impacts should be reduced as much as possible.
This means that turbine owners at Altamont Pass must take reasonable measures to significantly reduce bird kills and adequately compensate for impacts to imperiled bird populations. The Center supports recommendations made by California Energy Commission raptor experts to replace the numerous obsolete Altamont Pass turbines with fewer, more efficient turbines; implement mitigation measures to reduce bird kills at existing turbines; and preserve off-site nesting habitat for raptors to compensate for ongoing unacceptable bird losses. Suggested mitigation measures for existing turbines include retiring or relocating particularly lethal turbines, relocating and siting turbines into configurations less lethal to birds, using taller turbine towers so that the blades are above most raptor flight paths, retrofitting power poles to prevent electrocutions, and managing habitat so that rodent prey is not near turbines. But despite the fact that raptors’ risk and mortality have increased recently, most Altamont energy companies have failed to implement these mitigations fully.
In 2003 and 2004, the Center appealed 29 permits for more than 3,600 wind turbines at Altamont Pass after Alameda County renewed them without conducting any public environmental review or requiring meaningful mitigation measures to reduce or compensate for bird deaths. In 2004, we filed a lawsuit in federal court against all Altamont energy companies for continuing to kill tens of thousands of protected birds, asserting that the killings were unlawful under wildlife protection laws and unfair business practices under the California Business and Professions Code. The same year, we suspended the lawsuit to allow the companies to implement mitigation measures recommended by the California Energy Commission. But the companies claimed that they couldn’t afford mitigation measures, simultaneously refusing to disclose any financial data. The Center published a financial analysis of their operations and windfall profits, which showed the mitigation measures to be affordable; when the companies proposed a sham mitigation plan that would have allowed the bird kills to continue, we re-filed our lawsuit.
In 2005, Alameda County partially rejected the permit appeals but added numerous additional permit conditions and mitigations aimed at reducing ongoing bird kills. The new permits, while significantly flawed, were a definite improvement over the original permits. In addition, the county appointed a scientific review committee and avian monitoring team to begin a comprehensive monitoring program and peer-reviewed study of bird fatalities at Altamont, aimed at finding the most effective solutions for reducing bird kills. We stopped Alameda County’s attempt to install a biased wind-industry consultant to serve as the so-called “neutral” scientific monitor, forcing the county to adopt a team of consultants, including individuals from the University of California.
In 2006, an Alameda County court dismissed our lawsuit, overturning previous court decisions that the lawsuit could go forward. We lobbied hard and spent four years organizing public input to change the Alameda County permit conditions to address the bird kills. We opposed a disastrous 2007 settlement agreement that revised and gutted the Alameda County permit conditions, giving away all significant mitigation measures in the existing permits through loopholes by which the energy companies can avoid most of the significant measures promised in 2005. The 2007 settlement was supposed to reduce bird deaths by half, but it’s now clear that it has failed. Reports published in 2009 document continued energy-company violations of the Altamont Pass settlement agreement, Alameda County's attempts to subvert bird fatality reduction measures, and the fact that bird fatality rates at Altamont appear to have increased significantly (85 percent for all raptors and 51 percent for all birds) from1998 to 2003 and 2005 to 2007.
In December 2010, the California Attorney General’s Office announced a settlement agreement with the largest energy company at Altamont Pass, involving about 2,400 of the 5,400 turbines and requiring “repowering” or replacing old turbines with fewer and more efficient turbines by 2015. The new turbines will cover less geographic area and will be sited in less risky areas for birds, according to guidelines established by scientists. Scientists caution that because of the location of the wind farm, bird kills will likely continue even at repowered turbines, so the company will make mitigation payments to local land-protection agencies to protect nearby raptor habitat and will implement a monitoring and adaptive-management plan to modify future operations in problem areas. The repowering under the agreement is a positive step and a fairly good model for what should happen throughout the wind farm, and the involvement of the attorney general is a welcome development. But the settlement covers fewer than half the turbines that need to be replaced. The Center will keep a close watch on the energy companies and the county to ensure that agreements are kept, and we’ll continue to advocate for the best bird protection possible.