Conservation groups seek changes at 70-MW wind farm

A coalition of eight conservation organizations is seeking further limits on the operation of a western Maryland wind farm that the groups call the deadliest in the United States.

The 28-turbine Criterion Wind Project, located near Oakland, Md., went into operation in December of 2010 and is owned by Exelon Power, a unit of Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXE).

The challenge is contained in comments filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is considering the 70-MW wind farm operator’s request for an incidental take permit for endangered Indiana bats.

During its first full year of operation (2011), Criterion conducted daily monitoring for bat and bird mortality between April 5 and Nov. 15. Although no Indiana bat deaths were confirmed, Criterion estimates that the project killed approximately 1,093 other bats (39 bats per turbine) and 448 birds (16 birds per turbine), the groups say. This is the highest mortality rate per turbine for any wind facility in the U.S.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to “take,” meaning harm or kill, federally threatened or endangered wildlife. Some otherwise legal activities, such as wind turbine operation, have the risk of incidentally taking protected species. These activities can continue, as long as the project owner “undertakes reasonable and practical measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate” deaths of listed species.

In their letter to FWS, the groups say that “…while we applaud the Service and Criterion for taking certain steps in an effort to make this wind project more environmentally sustainable, we raise various concerns with respect to [the Service’s] and Criterion’s compliance with federal law, and request that the Service and company address these concerns before issuance of any [Incidental Take Permit].”

The power generator has agreed to limit operations to slightly higher wind speeds during summer evenings, when the likelihood of bat mortality is higher.

The request for a permit is similar to one being sought by the Beech Ridge Wind Farm in West Virginia.

The Maryland groups are also seeking the FWS to require an environmental impact statement for the project, a higher standard of review than the current environmental assessment that is now underway.

The environmental groups are Save Western Maryland, American Bird Conservancy, Friends of Blackwater, Allegheny Highlands Alliance, Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, Laurel Mountain Preservation Association, Allegheny Front Alliance, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

 “I cannot imagine that the state of Maryland is proud of the fact that the first commercial wind power project in the state – a short drive from our nation’s capital – is the most deadly for birds in the entire country. This is a terrible precedent for the state; something their wildlife leaders probably find to be very embarrassing and in need of corrective action by the Federal Government,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.