The dirty little secret about the windmill farm at Altamont Pass is that it slaughters thousands of birds every year while politicians turn a blind eye. Four years ago, environmental groups filed suit after the Alameda County Board of Supervisors effectively allowed the farm's several owners to keep killing birds despite evidence that the deaths could be greatly lessened. A resulting legal settlement was supposed to cut in half the number of annual deaths. But according to a recent scientific report, Altamont wind turbines are shredding raptors at an increasing rate. The total number of birds killed each year may now top 5,000.
The report, authored by Shawn Smallwood, a respected scientist who has been studying bird deaths east of Livermore since the late 1990s, shows that the number of overall bird deaths in 2005 to 2007 jumped 23 percent compared to the last major study, which looked at bird mortality from 1998 to 2003. The fatality rate for large raptors, including golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, American kestrel falcons, and burrowing owls, has increased 10 percent. Overall, the report estimates that the number of birds killed each year by Altamont wind turbines is between 1,072 and 5,125. The report was published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Management.
The Smallwood report and the lack of progress in slowing the slaughter has prompted one of the groups that sued the companies and the county in 2005 to head back to court. Californians for Renewable Energy, a Santa Cruz-based grassroots group, is asking a judge to order the wind farm to close on October 1. The request also asks that it remain shuttered until the county completes an environmental impact report and the wind companies start abiding by the previous legal settlement. "They didn't remove the old, derelict turbines, the lethal turbines," said Michael Boyd, president of the group. "So the birds are still getting slaughtered."
Altamont is ground zero for bird deaths because it's one of the world's oldest large wind farms. Built in the 1980s with what is now inferior technology, the farm is covered with small turbines that have blades that rotate too close to the ground. These turbines are lethal for low-flying birds, especially raptors hunting for prey. Newer, taller turbines, by contrast, are not only safer, but more energy efficient. "There are bird kills at other wind farms, but none to the degree of Altamont," explained Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, who has closely followed the problem for the past decade.
So why don't the wind companies just replace their old turbines? For one, state-of-the-art turbines are expensive, so it's more profitable to let the old machines keep spinning, even if they're less efficient. And second, little political pressure is applied to the wind companies because they generate tax revenues for the county and because wind power is considered "green." The wind companies have benefitted from a double standard. Imagine the public outcry if Chevron was slaughtering more than 5,000 birds a year, including nearly 100 federally protected golden eagles.
In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity took a beating in the press several years ago for criticizing the companies and suing them and the county. As a result, Miller was reluctant to speak about the issue. But the center appears to have been right all along. It opposed the settlement reached by Boyd's organization and by Audubon, the bird conservation group, which also had sued. Back then, the center argued that the settlement included no mechanisms to make the wind companies replace the old turbines with new ones, and so a 50 percent reduction in deaths would likely never be reached.
But Boyd argues that the problem wouldn't be so bad now if the wind companies and the county had lived up to the agreement. "The lesson here is settlements don't always work out," he said. He also alleged that Audubon has undermined the agreement by not taking a stronger stance. "They've been more pro-wind than pro-birds as far as I can tell," he said.
William Yeates, an attorney for Audubon, said that while the group has been "disappointed" in the number of deaths and "dissatisfied" with the wind companies settlement compliance, it plans to neither support nor oppose Boyd's request for a shutdown. Audubon, he said, is waiting for a new report based on updated data from Smallwood, which will show whether the companies have made progress since 2007. "If they haven't reduced the bird fatalities by 50 percent, then they'll have to do more," he said.
A representative from one of the companies declined to be interviewed, saying it does not comment on pending litigation. But Alameda County Counsel Richard Winnie said the county will oppose Boyd's motion, which is scheduled for a hearing on September 30, because he believes it's premature.
Smallwood and the scientific review committee met last week at a three-day workshop to sift through his latest data and attempt to determine whether the measures taken by the wind companies have had any affect. One of the measures included a county-required three-month shut-down of the wind turbines during the winter, when more raptors are in the Altamont area. Smallwood had recommended a four-month shutdown, but the companies resisted. During a break in the workshop, Smallwood told Eco Watch that it was too early to tell whether any of the wind companies' efforts had worked. He said it could be several months before the committee's report is done.
He and a team of researchers estimate bird deaths at Altamont by scouring the wind farm for avian carcasses. The researchers, however, can't be sure that they have found all of the dead birds, because many will be eaten or carried off by scavengers. So they multiply the actual number of carcasses they find by a factor that estimates how many they missed. Historically, the wind companies have contended that Smallwood and his research team overestimate the missed-bird factor, even though his method has been accepted by peer-reviewed scientific journals and the California Energy Commission.
Berkeley Opposes the Dam, Too
The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously last week to oppose the controversial new dam proposed by East Bay MUD on the Mokelumne River. Berkeley became the second East Bay city to go on record opposing the large dam, following the Richmond City Council earlier this month (see Eco Watch, "Shoddy Science," 9/16/09). Most cities near the proposed dam in the Sierra Foothills have already come out strongly against it.
All nine Berkeley councilmembers voted against the dam, including Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Linda Maio, Darryl Moore, Max Anderson, Jesse Arreguin, Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf, Kriss Worthington, and Gordon Wozniak. Arreguin introduced the measure. The council also voted to support an effort to make the Mokelumne a national "wild and scenic river," a federal designation that would prohibit the dam. Although Berkeley's opposition to the dam is non-binding, it will apply additional pressure to the East Bay Municipal Utility District to abandon its plans. The agency's board of directors is scheduled to vote on whether to go forward with the dam proposal on October 13.
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