A Possible First: Lawsuit Over Birds Stops Federal Wind Energy Project

The Endangered Kirtland's warbler gets a little break from the Air National Guard | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

This is well outside California, but it may well have ramifications in the Golden State: A lawsuit threatened by a pair of bird conservation groups has halted a wind power development the federal government had planned along the Lake Erie shore in Ohio.

The project, on the Camp Perry Air National Guard Station just east of Toledo, had already been reduced in size due to pressure from bird protection groups. The military base occupies a stretch of lakeshore that's been identified as one of the most crucial bird migration corridors in the northeast, if not North America.

But the Air National Guard's downsized plan still included a 600-kilowatt wind turbine on the base. That, according to wildlife activists and state and federal agencies, posed an unacceptable risk to migrating birds including the federally Endangered Kirtland's warbler. The national group American Bird Conservancy (ABC), and the Ohio-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) threatened to sue to block the project January 8: the Air National Guard yanked the project in response on Tuesday.

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The Air National Guard (ANG) had previously released a "Finding Of No Significant Impact" (FONSI) on the project, a procedure under the National Environmental Policy Act that allows agencies to avoid the lengthy process of compiling an Environmental Impact Statement, instead publishing a much less stringent Environmental Assessment.

ABC and BSBO contended that the ANG had wrongly determined the project wouldn't have significant environmental impact despite unambiguous statements, from both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) that the project's damage to wildlife could be dire indeed.

In fact, in a September 2012 USFWS response to the ANG's Environmental Assessment said "we believe that siting a wind turbine at the proposed location presents a high level of risk to migratory birds.... The current site... does not reflect a site that minimizes potential effects on wildlife."

Part of the problem is the configuration of land and water at the west end of Lake Erie. The Great Lakes make up a daunting barrier for migrating birds, many of which are reluctant to cross large bodies of water. Camp Perry occupies a peninsula in a narrow section of Lake Erie, and the lake's few large islands offer a less intimidating route between the south shore and Canada's Point Pelee to the north.

In effect, the west end of Lake Erie is a "funnel" through which a large proportion of the Great Lakes' migrating birds pass.

As a result of the lawsuit, ANG Tuesday announced it was withdrawing the FONSI, effectively killing the project unless the Guard decides to start from square one with the full Environmental Impact Statement process.

The turbine on the ANG base was a mid-sized one, relatively speaking, and the south shore of the Lake has many wind projects pending. Still, the ANG's decision to pull the project's FONSI reflects what has until now been a relatively rare occurrence: an arm of the federal government stopping a renewable energy project due to its likely effect on wildlife.

"We are absolutely elated that the Air National Guard has halted this project, at least temporarily and possibly for good," said BSBO Executive Director Kimberly Kaufman, adding that BSBO would continue to gather petition signatures despite the ANG's decision. "We want to document the full extent of the opposition to this -- and similar projects in this area -- in the event the project is reconsidered in the future," said Kaufman.

"This is a big win for the vast numbers of birds that migrate through the Camp Perry area, which have been using these routes and stopover habitats for centuries," said Kenn Kaufman, an author of extremely popular bird and wildlife books who lives near Camp Perry. "Let's hope that the suspension is a permanent one."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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