Bird conservation groups are challenging an industry-supported environmental assessment of Lake Erie’s first offshore wind project, citing numerous inadequacies in both science and process. Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) and American Bird Conservancy (ABC) reject the assessment’s claim that the planned Icebreaker wind-energy facility would have little to no impact on birds and bats, citing the critical importance of Lake Erie to migratory birds such as the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler.
The draft environmental assessment (EA), prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers, was based on several studies conducted by consultants to the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation, or LEEDCo, the consortium developing the project.
“Based on our exhaustive review of the EA, we see no evidence to support the claim that the project poses little to no risk to birds and bats,” said Kimberly Kaufman, BSBO’s executive director. “In fact, having conducted more than 30 years of migratory bird research along Lake Erie, we believe the six-turbine Icebreaker project would pose a significant threat to wildlife — not to mention substantially increased impacts that would be triggered by the planned expansion of the project to more than 1,000 turbines.”
The organizations highlighted five major concerns in their comments, which were submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy:
- The proposed Icebreaker project site is approximately seven miles from the Lake Erie shoreline, near Cleveland, Ohio. Five recent advanced radar studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recorded vast numbers of migratory birds and bats within 5 to 10 miles of the Great Lakes shorelines, including Lake Erie. Many were flying within the rotor-swept area of wind turbines. In addition, this is a Globally Important Bird Area (IBA): The Ohio waters of the Central Basin of Lake Erie have been registered with BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society as globally significant habitat for birds. “The Global IBA designation should be an automatic trigger for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), instead of a cursory EA,” said Kaufman.
- Dismissing any threat to the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, the assessment cites outdated studies and ignores new data from birds fitted with radio transmitters. These data show that the species uses the airspace of central Lake Erie almost exclusively for its fall migration. The site selected for the Icebreaker project turbines could put the entire world population of this rare species at risk.
- To reach the little to no impact conclusion, the industry assessors relied on limited visual surveys conducted only during daytime and in good weather to conclude that migrating birds fly at a height sufficient to avoid the turbines’ blades. However, many songbirds and most bats migrate at night. The risk they face from wind-energy facilities is likely greater during conditions of high winds, heavy rain, fog, or low cloud cover, which can affect flight altitude and bring them within the rotor-swept area of the turbines.
- The assessment erroneously concludes that migratory birds and bats avoid crossing Lake Erie, instead flying around it. As Kaufman states, “Anyone watching birds on the shore of Lake Erie can see that birds do in fact fly over the water. Studies also show with certainty that given good physical condition, large numbers of migratory birds and bats cross the lake, many of them making the long journey after stopping at the shoreline to rest and feed.”
- The EA fails to acknowledge similar existing or planned projects throughout the Great Lakes that could increase the cumulative impacts on birds and bats — an evaluation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). What happens with the Icebreaker project could set an important precedent for the Great Lakes region on both sides of the border. Ontario, for instance, has placed a moratorium on any open-water wind facilities in Lake Erie until Icebreaker is decided.
BSBO and ABC hope that these concerns will be reflected in any future assessments of the environmental impact of Icebreaker and other proposed offshore wind-energy development in the Great Lakes. A public comment period closed earlier this month, and a final EA could be issued in the next few months. The Ohio Power Siting Board will hold a public hearing on the project in Cleveland on November 8, 2017.
“Environmental assessments are intended to evaluate risks to public trust resources like wildlife before projects move forward,” said Michael Hutchins, director of ABC’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Program. “Assessments like this one, however, are based on inadequate studies that contradict easily observable facts and ignore up-to-date science and cumulative impacts. As the United States makes important strides to increase renewable energy, we need to do much better to minimize impacts to birds and other wildlife.”
This story was provided by American Bird Conservancy, a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.
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