In reviewing the agenda for Tuesday's County Council meeting, I discovered that the Council will have a special meeting to review another wind energy ordinance proposal from the Planning Department. The last two proposals forwarded from the Planning Department were sent back by the Council after strong public opposition. There is an interim moratorium currently in place for large wind energy system permit applications. I am not sure what changes have been made to this draft, but I am sure of what changes have not been made. The wind energy ordinance proposal, (WES), fails to adequately protect wildlife and habitat. The proposal should not be approved without correcting this deficiency. The County can not afford to ignore this issue because it has resulted in extensive litigation in other states. Conservation groups, who support wind energy under the proper conditions, have successfully sued local and federal government over failure to mitigate wildlife and habitat impacts.
The proposal fails to protect all species that could be harmed. The ordinance fails to protect species not otherwise covered by the Endangered Species Act, and the Migratory Bird Act. Whatcom County is home to residential and migrating bald eagles and the more uncommon golden eagle, both of which are protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Why is this third federal law not included in the proposal?
Wind turbines disrupt ecological balance. The public has been misled with claims that wind towers kill a small number of birds. This is not equivalent to minimal environmental impact. Wind towers disproportionately affect raptors, not all of whom are protected under federal law. Raptors are more likely to be found in the wind corridors favored by the energy industry, or attracted to the kill found near the bottom of wind towers. When the predator population is reduced, it upsets the natural ecosystem and could have significant long term impacts. Moreover, because raptors exist in small numbers and are slow to reproduce, even a small number of wind turbine kills could have implications for raptor species survival. Scientists are concerned that some wind energy projects kill raptor species faster then they can reproduce.
The proposal threaten bats and the ecosystem services they provide. Nothing in the proposal protects bats, which are of great importance in Whatcom County, and which are being killed in much higher numbers than birds. Air-pressure changes created by wind turbines cause the bats sensitive lungs to explode and they drop dead from the sky. Already threatened by the spread of white-nose fungus, it is unknown whether wind farm fatalities, over time, threaten the survival of certain bat species. This is a matter of scientific concern because bats play a significant role in reducing insect populations that destroy crops and spread disease. A large kill-off of County bats could reduce the profitability of Whatcom County agriculture and increase the need for expensive and harmful chemicals and pesticides. Increasing the minimum speed needed to set turbines in motion is one solution, because bats are more active in low wind, albeit not one incorporated into this proposal.
Wind energy has harmful impacts on habitat. One of the worst impacts from wind energy is loss of habitat. Wind energy facilities are generally located in rural areas, or along virgin mountain ridges, where they displace or fragment prime habitat. Loss of habitat is considered the greatest threat to wildlife species survival. The proposed WES ordinance lacks siting criteria that prevent wind turbines from being placed in sensitive or important habitat, near important nesting areas, bat caves, along migration routes or other wildlife travel corridors.
Other mitigation requirements that could be included in the proposal include temporarily shutting down turbines during migration periods or during poor weather conditions; hiring “spotters” who turn off turbines when birds are sighted; retrofitting power poles to prevent bird electrocutions; burying transmission lines in high risk areas; increasing the visibility of wind towers to birds; reducing lights and glare at night, better monitoring at existing facilities; and compensatory mitigation to off-set unavoidable impacts.
In March, the U.S. Department of Interior released voluntary guidelines for the wind energy industry that reflected the efforts of numerous stakeholders, including the wind energy industry and conservation organizations. Why are these guidelines not referenced in the proposal? I suggest adopting the federal stakeholder guidelines as part of the County’s WES ordinance requirements.
The proposal should not be enacted until it contains specific regulations that address siting, expand protected species, regulate wind facilities operations and species monitoring, and require compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts. Will this be more expensive for the wind industry? Yes, but this reflects the actual cost to build and run a WES, and this cost should be borne by the developer.