Golden Gate Audubon and four other local Audubon chapters sent a letter Jan. 28 to Alameda County demanding that the county ensure that wind turbines operating in the Altamont Pass remain shut down until the county implements a management plan that significantly reduces avian mortality resulting from wind turbine operations in the Altamont.
“Wind turbine operations in the Altamont Pass kill as many as 9,600 birds each year, including many species that are fully protected by state and federal laws,” said Mike Lynes, Conservation Director for Golden Gate Audubon. “While we support responsible development of alternative energy resources, we cannot maintain the status quo in the Altamont without risking local bird populations. If wind energy generation is to remain in the Altamont Pass, the old wind turbines that cause the most mortality must be replaced with new turbines that are safer for birds.”
According to the draft 2009 Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area Bird Fatality Study recently released by Alameda County, the wind companies that operate in the Altamont Pass have failed to significantly reduce the number of bird deaths that occur due to wind operations as required by a 2007 settlement agreement between the wind companies and the Audubon chapters. In this agreement, the companies were required to reduce bird deaths by 50 percent within three years, by November, 2009. Under the terms of the settlement, the parties must now implement a new management plan that will achieve the required reduction in bird deaths. According to Alameda County’s independent Scientific Review Committee, the best way to reduce bird mortality without removing wind power altogether is to remove these old generation turbines and replace them with new turbines that, if sited appropriately at Altamont, will result in fewer bird deaths.
According to the most recent data, wind operations in the Altamont Pass kill approximately 7,300 to 9,600 birds each year, including as many as 94 golden eagles, 477 American kestrels, 433 red-tailed hawks, and 718 burrowing owls. Species such as the golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, and the burrowing owl are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes any killing of the birds a violation of federal law.
The Altamont Pass became one of the world’s largest wind farms in the 1980s as companies, spurred by enthusiasm for alternative energy and federal economic incentives, installed more than 5,500 wind turbines across 80 miles of the hilly grassland habitat. Despite the importance of the area for migratory and breeding birds, particularly hawks, owls and eagles, the wind turbines were installed without any environmental review. Thousands of birds were killed annually at Altamont; and in 2004 an independent study funded by the California Energy Commission affirmed what had been happening for two decades.
In 2005, Golden Gate Audubon, Santa Clara Valley Audubon, Mt. Diablo Audubon, Ohlone Audubon, and Marin Audubon joined with Californians for Renewable Energy (CARE) and sued Alameda County, alleging that its failure to conduct an environmental impact report assessing the impacts of the turbines on wildlife in the Altamont Pass was illegal and threatened wildlife. In 2007, the County and wind companies settled with Audubon and CARE, promising to reduce the killing of hawks, eagles and owls by 50 percent within three years.
According to Bob Power, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, “It is clear that the existing, out-dated and poorly sited wind turbines at Altamont Pass continue to kill far too many birds, including rare and protected species like the golden eagle and burrowing owl. If wind turbine operations are to remain in the Altamont Pass, they must be modernized immediately; and, sited and operated to significantly reduce the killing of these birds.”
Mike Lynes, Conservation Director, Golden Gate Audubon, (510) 853-6551, mlynes @goldengateaudubon.org.