Alameda County — The National Audubon Society and several local Audubon branches have filed a suit against Alameda County to block development of a new 80-megawatt wind turbine project in the Altamont Pass area.
The lawsuit alleges that in giving approval to the project, known as Mulqueeny Ranch, the county has not carried out needed environmental reviews or worked to ensure adequate protection for birds and bats. According to the Audubon Society, the Altamont Pass area is home to the densest nesting population of golden eagles in the world.
The eagle population is now declining, however, because so many birds have been killed since wind power development began in the 1980s, the organization charges.
In addition to golden eagles, wind power projects are killing unacceptably high numbers of other important bird species, as well as bats, according to an Audubon statement. Birds being killed include western burrowing owls, red tailed hawks, American kestrels and tricolored blackbirds.
Mike Lynes, California state policy director for the National Audubon Society, said that Audubon “supports responsibly developed wind projects…, but we have been forced to file this lawsuit because Alameda County has broken its commitments and failed to protect birds and bats in the Altamont Pass for 40 years.”
He said the county has “approved a poorly planned project that they know will kill golden eagles and other birds in violation of state and federal laws and that will contribute to the continuing declines of golden eagles and other sensitive species.”
The Alameda County Counsel’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As described by a National Geographic fact sheet, the gap provided by the Altamont Pass in the Diablo Mountain range channels winds west to east at a relatively steady average speed of 15 miles per hour.
It has an historic and continuing role in U.S. renewable energy development. In the early 1980s, Altamont became the nation’s biggest wind power resource area, a model for more modern wind development projects in Southern California.
Altamont grew to include some 5,000 wind turbines that eventually generated about 580 megawatts of electrical energy, according to the National Geographic.
Early growth was highly destructive to birds, however, reducing the local populations of some species like golden eagles to the point that they were “unsustainable,” according to Lynes.
Some reports said that Altamont wind turbines were killing as many as 10,000 birds every year. Despite the accumulation of data about bird losses, and despite protests by naturalists and conservation groups, Alameda County renewed wind turbine operating permits as they came due soon after 2000 “without any environmental review, without mitigation,” Lynes said.
The county “just did what the wind companies wanted, which was renew the permits without any conditions to protect the birds.”
As a result, conservation groups sued in 2005, leading to a settlement two years later that aimed at reducing bird deaths by half.
Steps agreed to in the settlement included replacing older, more destructive turbine designs with newer, safer ones – a process known as repowering — and other measures aimed at progressively stricter protections if bird mortality goals were not met.
In the view of the National Audubon Society and its local chapters, the promises made in that settlement have not been kept. Most important overall was the goal of “reducing avian mortality by 50 percent by 2009,” according to Lynes.
The specific project that triggered the new lawsuit was the County’s approval two months ago of the 80-megawatt Mulqueeney Ranch project. The company developing the site is Brookfield Renewables, LLC, which believes that its efforts are appropriate for the “responsible and thoughtful development” of the wind power site.
In an emailed statement, it called Mulqueeney “a well-designed and thoroughly studied wind project, replacing over 500 old turbines with 24 modern units.”
It said the project “has gone through an extensive environmental review and permitting process with particular focus on avian species.”
It has reduced the number of turbines by one-third, and its operational plan includes slowing or stopping turbines at low wind speeds “to further reduce risk to eagles and bats.”
The project will provide emission-free power for 18,000 homes and will be built with union labor, stimulating the local economy, Brookfield noted.
The California Wind Energy Association, an industry support group, also argues in Brookfield’s favor. The company has bent over backwards to meet environmental needs, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a conservation plan to protect eagles, the Association wrote in an August letter to the county.
Brookfield has relocated turbine sites with eagle protection in mind and will reduce turbine spin speeds to reduce risk to both birds and bats, the Association said. It warned that further operating restrictions could doom the project by making it uneconomical.
For their part, the National Audubon Society and its local chapters make it clear that they support wind power and other renewable energy projects generally. They just want them carried out with much greater attention to conservation needs.
This latest lawsuit is National Audubon’s first aimed at stopping a California wind power project.
To William Hoppes, president of the Tri-Valley’s Ohlone Audubon Society, which is participating in the lawsuit, legal action was forced on the conservation groups by Alameda County’s failure to live up to its 2009 promise to reduce eagle mortality by half.
“We felt we had to draw a line,” he said.
On a personal basis, he hopes “the two parties might come together without going to court” to find a solution that protects birds, while allowing wind power development.