In a first for the industry, a large energy company has pleaded guilty to violating the American Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) in connection with the deaths of protected birds at two of its wind turbine farms in Wyoming.
Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary of Fortune 250 company Duke Energy, admitted to killing more than 160 birds, including 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, between 2009 and 2013 at two of its commercial wind projects, "Campbell Hill" and "Top of the World," which have 176 turbines. The company has been fined 1 million U.S. dollars.
"This case represents the first criminal conviction under the American Migratory Bird Treaty for unlawful avian takings at wind projects," said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, in a statement released on Friday, the same day Duke admitted to the violations.
The MBTA was enacted in 1918. One of the first American environmental laws, it is intended to protect more than 1,000 species and makes the killing of such birds an offense under national law. The golden eagle is not endangered, but has been on the protected list since 1962.
According to the charges and other information presented in court, Duke Energy Renewables failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
"The Service works cooperatively with companies that make all reasonable efforts to avoid killing migratory birds during design, construction and operation of industrial facilities," said William Woody, Assistant Director for Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the statement.
"But we will continue to investigate and refer for prosecution cases in which companies - in any sector, including the wind industry - fail to comply with the laws that protect the public's wildlife resources."
The company has cooperated with the USFWS investigation throughout and has already implemented new measures aimed at minimizing avian deaths at the sites.
"We will continue our approach to proactively safeguard wildlife resources," Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, said. "Over the coming months, the company will be working closely with the USFWS on a Migratory Bird Compliance Plan and an Eagle Conservation Plan that allow us to continue to operate our wind facilities while protecting avian populations."
He also added that "our goal is to provide the benefits of wind energy in the most environmentally friendly responsible way possible" in a statement.
According to papers filed with the court, commercial wind power projects can cause the deaths of federally-protected birds in four primary ways: collision with wind turbines, collision with associated meteorological towers, collision with, or electrocution by, associated electrical power facilities, and nest abandonment or behavior avoidance from habitat modification.
Duke is working to install radar technology to detect eagles near the sites. The company also is employing field biologists who watch for the birds and temporarily shut down the turbines if necessary.
According to papers filed with the court, Duke Energy Renewables will spend approximately 600,000 U.S. dollars per year implementing the compliance plan.
"Our voluntary monitoring and curtailment of turbines have been effective. Upon implementing these measures, more than a year passed without any known golden eagle fatalities at these sites," said Tim Hayes, Duke Energy Renewable's environmental development director, in the statement.
Duke's 1 million dollars in restitution and fines will be split with 400,000 dollars to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, 100,000 dollars to the state of Wyoming and 160,000 dollars to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation -- designated for projects aimed at preserving golden eagles and increasing the understanding of ways to minimize and monitor interactions between eagles and commercial wind power facilities, as well as enhance eagle rehabilitation and conservation efforts in Wyoming. 340,000 dollars is earmarked for a conservation fund for the purchase of land in Wyoming for golden eagle habitat.
Birds are apt to be killed by wind energy turbines if it is without proper protections. In 2012, over 600,000 birds were killed by turbines across America, according to research recently published in the journal BioScience.