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Eagle victims of wind farms get justice

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 6:36 p.m.
A golden eagle flies over a wind turbine on Duke energy’s Top of the World wind farm on April 18, 2013, in Converse County Wyo.

WASHINGTON — A major U.S. power company has pleaded guilty to killing eagles and other birds at two Wyoming wind farms and agreed to pay $1 million as part of the first enforcement of environmental laws protecting birds against wind energy facilities.

Until the settlement announced Friday with Duke Energy Corp. and its renewable energy arm, not a single wind energy company had been prosecuted for a death of an eagle or other protected bird — even though each death is a violation of federal law, unless a company has a federal permit. Not a single wind energy facility has obtained a permit.

The Charlotte-based company pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at its Top of the World and Campbell Hill wind farms outside Casper, Wyo. All the deaths — which included golden eagles, hawks, blackbirds, wrens and sparrows — occurred from 2009 to 2013.

“Wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds,” said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, which supports properly sited wind farms. “The unfortunate reality is that the flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread.”

There could be more enforcement. The Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities, and about a half-dozen have been referred to the Justice Department.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortices. Eagles are especially vulnerable because they don't look up as they scan the ground for food, failing to notice the blades until it's too late.

“No form of energy generation, or human activity for that matter, is completely free of impacts, and wind energy is no exception,” the American Wind Energy Association said in a statement.

The case against Duke Energy and Duke Energy Renewables Inc. was the first prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act against a wind energy company.

The Obama administration has championed pollution-free wind power and used the same law against oil companies and power companies for drowning and electrocuting birds.

A study in September by federal biologists found that wind turbines killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles since 2008. Wyoming had the most eagle deaths. That did not include deaths at Altamont Pass, an area in northern California where wind farms kill an estimated 60 eagles a year.

An investigation in May by The Associated Press revealed dozens of eagle deaths from wind energy facilities, including at Duke's Top of the World farm, the deadliest for eagles of 15 such facilities that Duke operates nationwide.

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