Don’t Mince Birds 

Wind power for Los Angeles faces down a new foe

Thursday, Mar 17 2005
It began with a fanfare that fast became a public-relations nightmare; it has been stalled for nearly a year awaiting impact reports. And just when it seemed poised to go forward in advance of a mayoral election that could be decided by a handful of environmentalist votes, the Pine Tree Wind Farm has hit yet another obstacle: the defenders of the hundreds of songbirds that some ornithologists believe fly through the proposed 22,000-acre site in the Mojave Desert every year.

“It’s a prime location on the north-south migration pattern every fall and spring,” says Garry George, first vice president and conservation chair of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Audubon Society. “Flycatchers, warblers, vireos, those kinds of birds.” An environmental impact report (EIR) published in July 2004 acknowledged potential harm to red-tailed hawks, but estimated that Pine Tree’s 80 turbines would kill only four raptors per year (the average among all North American wind farms is 2.19 deaths per year) — not much impact to a healthy population. But there’s no evidence in the EIR that anyone even observed a single songbird. “They visited only one time and only for an hour during the birds’ peak migration period, which is April 15th to May 30th,” George says. “How could they conclude it wasn’t harmful to songbirds if they weren’t there when most birds come through?”

A proposed $162 million project that would supply clean energy to 120,000 Los Angeles homes, the Pine Tree Wind Farm could help the DWP meet a goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2017, as set by the Los Angeles City Council last year. The DWP’s own Web site boasts that the project will reduce the utility’s carbon-dioxide emissions “by more than 210,000 tons each year.”

That obviously thrills clean-energy advocates, who say the DWP has been notoriously sluggish on clean power. “The DWP’s mantra is to build dirty coal plants out of state,” says Rhonda Mills, director of special projects for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT). “They prefer to diminish visibility in national parks in Utah than put any effort into wind or solar. For us this wind farm is a very promising project compared to what we’ve built in the last 30 years.

“But that doesn’t mean you do it at the expense of everything,” Mills cautions. “It means that you do it right, with all the reports in place.”

George agrees. “We don’t object to wind power in general; we just want them to do all the studies.”

Bird enthusiasts have found little comfort in the histories of other California wind farms, such as the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in eastern Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. In addition to killing anywhere from 800 to 1,200 birds of prey a year, including the protected golden eagle, Altamont’s mills also chew up some 3,000 meadowlarks and nearly 400 burrowing owls. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed suit against several companies managing the wind farm alleging unfair business practices (Wind Turbine Prometheus, which will develop Pine Tree with General Electric turbines, is not among them). Even the California Energy Company has recommended retiring the facility’s most lethal turbines.

“Wind turbine owners are not doing enough to mitigate bird and bat mortality,” says K. Shawn Smallwood, an independent ecologist specializing in minimizing bird kills on wind farms who worked on the Pine Tree draft EIR. “What the wind industry is doing right now is denying there’s a problem,” he says. “That’s too bad, because there’s a way to make wind power truly green. They just won’t do it.”

City officials may be feeling more pressure to make Pine Tree a reality since a February article in the Daily News by James Nash targeted the project as the most egregious example of DWP shams linked to the Fleishman-Hillard scandal, such as a stalled tree-planting program the DWP spent more than $10,000 to promote. At upwards of $60,000 for a single media event in February 2003 and no results so far, “the Pine Tree Wind Farm was far and away the costliest and the one that so far has produced the least,” wrote Nash.

But even environmentalists who objected to the high cost of the press conference say they understand that the DWP has been hung up on authentic obstacles, including the military, which uses the air space over the Mojave to train pilots. “From my perspective, it would have been better to spend that $60,000 on getting the energy itself,” says Martin Schlageter of the Coalition for Clean Air. “But I’ve harassed the DWP for many, many months, and I do know that getting through the military regulations has meant many months of negotiations. And if there’s somebody out there who’s likely to be overly bureaucratic, it’s the military.”

Then again, a fraction of that $60,000 would have funded a more than adequate bird study. Smallwood doesn’t imagine that Pine Tree, which will be located in Kern County near the Mojave Desert’s Jawbone and Pine Tree Canyons, will prove anywhere as deadly as Altamont. “Altamont is killing many more birds than the habitat can support,” says Smallwood. “I doubt it will be that bad at Pine Tree.” And many birds can be spared by practicing simple restraints such as turning the turbines off at night, or during certain seasons in which birds migrate in large numbers. “If you shut down the turbines at Altamont in the wintertime, you’d lose 16 percent of the annual output, but save half the birds,” says Smallwood. “I think most people would agree that’s a fair balance between energy and bird deaths.”

Local Audubon groups have offered to pay for a thorough study of the Pine Tree region’s songbirds, says George, “and if they’d revise the EIR according to the study, then we could talk about mitigation measures.” Instead, the DWP has promised to do its own study and include its findings in its revised EIR. The public review process closed on the draft in early January, and a new version is due in the next few weeks, according to DWP spokesperson Kim Hughes. Until then, no other DWP official will comment.

George, who’s been told that the EIR is scheduled to be voted on April 19 (something the DWP will not confirm) and that groundbreaking is slated for early June, isn’t optimistic the new EIR will have properly assessed the songbird risk. “If it’s really a new EIR, it can’t possibly address the migratory period, because it hasn’t happened yet.” Avian defenders have 30 days from the ratification date to sue, and that might be their only option. “It’s a possibility,” says George. “We’ve already been approached already by attorneys who said they would take the case.”

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Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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