Thursday, April 17, 2014
The Associated Press
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Solomon, a 14-year-old golden eagle, perches on a branch at the Sulphur Creek Nature Center on Thursday, May 9, 2013, in Hayward, Calif. According to keepers, a wind turbine near the Altamont Pass severed a portion of Solomon's left wing in 2000 leaving him unable to fly or survive in the wild. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year.
A golden eagle flies near a wind turbine on a wind farm owned by PacifiCorp near Glenrock, Wyo., Monday, May 6, 2013. At least 20 golden eagles have been found dead at the companies wind farms in Wyoming, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year. (AP Photo/Matt Young)
The rare exception for one industry substantially weakened the government's ability to enforce the law and ignited controversy inside the Interior Department.
"U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not do this for the electric utility industry or other industries," Kevin Kritz, a government wildlife biologist in the Rocky Mountain region wrote in government records in September 2011. "Other industries will want to be judged on a similar standard."
Experts working for the agency in California and Nevada wrote in government records in June 2011 that the new federal guidelines should be considered as though they were put together by corporations, since they "accommodate the renewable energy industry's proposals, without due accountability."
The Obama administration, however, repeatedly overruled its experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the end, the wind-energy industry, which was part of the committee that drafted and edited the guidelines, got almost everything it wanted.
"Clearly, there was a bias to wind energy in their favor because they are a renewable source of energy, and justifiably so," said Rob Manes, who runs the Kansas office for The Nature Conservancy and who served on the committee. "We need renewable energy in this country."
The government also declared that senior officials in Washington, many of whom are political appointees, must approve any wind-farm prosecution. Normally, law-enforcement agents in the field have the authority to file charges with federal attorneys.
While all big cases are typically cleared through headquarters, such a blanket policy has never been applied to an entire industry, former officials said.
"It's over," Eicher said. "You'll never see a prosecution now."
Not so, says the Fish and Wildlife Service. It said it is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities, and seven have been referred to the Justice Department. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to discuss the status of those cases.
Ashe said his agency always made it clear to wind companies that if they kill birds they could still be liable.
"We are not allowing them to do it. They do it," he said of the bird deaths. "And we will successfully prosecute wind companies if they are in significant noncompliance."
But officials acknowledge that their priority is cooperating with companies before wind farms are built to encourage them to be put where they won't harm birds. Once they are built, there is little companies can do except shut down turbines or remove them — and that means reducing the amount of electricity they generate and violating deals struck with companies purchasing their electricity.
By contrast, there are easy fixes for oil companies and companies operating power lines to stop killing birds. The government often requests companies take such steps before it decides to prosecute.
"We just can't be bringing a criminal case against a company that is up and running if there is not a solution," said Jill Birchell, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement office in California and Nevada. "We can fine them, but that doesn't help eagles."
In the meantime, birds continue to die. The golden eagle population in the West, prior to the wind energy boom, was declining so much that the government's conservation goal in 2009 was not to allow the eagle population to decrease by a single bird.
The reason boils down to biology. Eagles take five years to reach the age when they can reproduce, and often they only produce one chick a year.
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Windmills lining the Altamont Pass generate electricity on Sunday, May 12, 2013, near Livermore, Calif. It's the not-so-green secret of the nation's wind-energy boom: Spinning turbines are killing thousands of federally protected birds, including eagles, each year. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)