Bald eagles won an unexpected victory Thursday when Minnesota regulators delayed a wind farm near Red Wing for at least a year because the developer failed to produce an adequate plan to protect America's national symbol and other flying creatures.
Local residents who have been fighting the 48-turbine farm for years hugged each other and wiped away tears when the three-member Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted 2-1 to deny the plan. The PUC demanded that AWA Goodhue Wind, owned by Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, provide better research on how many eagles and bats fly through or near the site, which is prime hunting and nesting territory.
"I don't think that the American people are ready to watch Minnesota's nesting bald eagles be destroyed on behalf of a Texas millionaire," said Mary Hartman, a local resident.
Company officials declined to comment afterward. Neither did their local supporters, who rode together on a chartered bus.
The hearing reflected the emerging conflict between the demand for clean energy and a growing realization that wind farms can kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats a year.
The small wind farm near Red Wing has drawn national attention from conservation groups concerned about the design and placement of wind farms.
"This is one of the hottest fights in the nation," said Kelly Fuller, wind campaign coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy.
Goodhue Wind has recently conceded that the project would probably harm an unknown number of eagles, and has started an application for a federal permit that would legally allow it to kill the birds. The permit is a new strategy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the often-lethal conflict between birds and turbine blades. Only one other wind project has applied -- West Butte Power Project in Oregon -- but no permits have been granted.
The decision to develop such permits is controversial among environmental and bird conservation groups. "The public cares deeply about bald eagles," Fuller said. "I've never met anyone who thinks it's a good idea to kill bald eagles. They are special birds."
Even the utilities commissioners expressed some discomfort with the idea at Thursday's hearing. Commissioner J. Dennis O'Brien called it "a license to kill."
"Every fall I apply for a duck hunting license," O'Brien said. "You will have a license to kill up to a specified number of eagles."
Commissioner Betsy Wergin asked the company's attorney how the number of eagle nests in their site survey could multiply so quickly since it first proposed the project.
"At the outset I recall one nest within a mile of the project," Wergin said. "Now there are six. With the proliferation of eagles, do you think you will be allowed to get a permit?"
"We have seen more nests," said Christy Brusven, the company's attorney. "The eagle population is an American success story."
But citizens who testified said that they believe the company had deliberately avoided conducting accurate surveys. They showed maps of the site footprint and the 10-mile radius around it with a dozen or more eagle nests, some of which were confirmed by state wildlife officials.
They also criticized the company's bat monitoring survey. Brusven said the technology used to record bat calls failed about half of the time during the survey period, and as a result the count was inaccurate. She said the company would continue to monitor bats during construction.
But the commissioners said instead that they want the company to first do the survey research on bats and birds, and coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the federal permit. Then, they said, the company could re-apply in about a year.
The project faces obstacles on another front, as well. The citizens group has asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to review an earlier decision by the PUC on setback rules. The commission overruled a Goodhue County ordinance that would have required the company to place turbines at least 2,700 feet from neighboring property lines.
Now, the appeals court will determine if the state has the right to overrule local governments on land use.
"This is a very important case," said Daniel Schleck, the attorney representing the citizens group opposing the wind farm. "It's an open-ended question on whether the state has the power."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394