Duke Energy Renewables Inc. has pleaded guilty to killing eagles with its wind turbines—the first wind-power company to be found criminally liable under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act—and will pay a total of $1 million in fines.
The plea agreement calls for a mix of “fines, restitution and community service” in the deaths of 14 eagles and 149 other birds, including hawks, blackbirds, wrens and sparrows, between 2009 and 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement on November 22. The company, a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corp. out of Charlotte, North Carolina, has also been placed on probation for five years while it implements an environmental compliance plan to prevent bird deaths at the four commercial wind projects that the company owns, the Justice Department said.
The fine money will go to several conservation groups, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and The Conservation Fund.
“The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects,” the Justice Department’s statement said.
Other companies have applied for such permits around the country, but those applications are being opposed. For example in June the Osage Nation filed formal objections to an application for just such a permit in Oklahoma by Wind Capital Group.
And Wind Capital Group is not alone. At least 14 applications for an Eagle Take Permit have been filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to KCET News—among them four wind farms in California and one in Minnesota, in addition to the one in Oklahoma.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects more than 1,000 bird species, including bald and golden eagles, according to the Justice Department media release. But many question how protective it can be if companies can merely file paperwork specifying the number of birds they expect their turbines to kill.
"Wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds," said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, to the Associated Press.
The conservancy supports wind farms as long as they’re situated out of danger to birds, Fenwick said, but added, "The unfortunate reality is that the flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread."
Other types of energy companies have been persecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, AP said, though not for wind power.
“In 2009 Exxon Mobil pleaded guilty and paid $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states,” AP reported. “The BP oil company was fined $100 million for killing and harming migratory birds during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants, paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines and at its substations.”
Large-scale commercial wind power projects kill birds in “four primary ways,” the Justice Department noted. “Collision with wind turbines, collision with associated meteorological towers, collision with, or electrocution by, associated electrical power facilities, and nest abandonment or behavior avoidance from habitat modification.”
Duke said it is working to make the turbines less dangerous to birds at two of its wind projects, which comprise 176 large wind turbines on private agricultural land, the AP said.
“We deeply regret the impacts to golden eagles at two of our wind facilities,” said Duke Energy Renewables President Greg Wolf in a company statement after the plea in U.S. District Court in Wyoming. “We have always self-reported all incidents, and from the time we discovered the first fatality, we’ve been working closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to take proactive steps to correct the problem.”