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Controversial Goodhue wind farm environmental impact plan rejected

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Wind turbines
Wind turbines dot a central Iowa field on May 23, 2011. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Thursday rejected an environmental impact plan for a proposed wind farm in Goodhue County.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission rejected a developer's plan to protect eagles and other wildlife that might be harmed by a controversial wind farm project in the southeastern region of the state.

The project is 50 turbines on about 50 square-miles of land in Goodhue County, not far from the Mississippi River. The developer, AWA Goodhue Wind, has been working on it for four years. During that time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come out with draft guidelines on how wind farms can avoid killing eagles and other protected birds and bats.

The company has been playing catch-up to meet the rules, said Christy Brusven, an attorney for the project.

"We're siting these turbines in the middle of farm fields wherever we can, these are not areas of high eagle use; eagles are using open water sources, treelines, etc."

Brusven said the turbines will be grouped in clusters, not laid out in staggered rows that present a massive barrier to the birds.

"There's plenty of area in this footprint for eagles to continue to get from their various points without coming into conflict with the turbines," Brusven said.

The Avian and Bat Protection Plan offered by Goodhue Wind would have required intensive monitoring to identify populations of eagles and bats, locating towers away from likely habitat for Loggerhead Shrike, and cleaning up roadkill and other tempting targets for eagles, to discourage them from flying near the turbines.

Neighbors who oppose the project packed the hearing room and took turns to  speak about flaws they see in the project. They said Goodhue Wind's plans locates towers too close to eagle nests, and even charged the developer's environmental consultant, Westwood, with purposely ignoring active nests.

Kristi Rosenquist estimates as many as 36 eagles in the area that are old enough to breed.

"All of these nests are visible from public roadways. The only way for Westwood not to see these nests is if Westwood was not looking for them," Rosenquist said.

A new wrinkle in eagle protection is a permit for "incidental take" of eagles that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designing.

The permit is an allotment for incidental bird strike over a period of time, and would be available to wind farms that commit to careful management to prevent harm to eagles.

In this case, the permit would allow the Goodhue wind farm to kill one eagle every two or three years, without penalty. Goodhue Wind has submitted an application to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the agency is just beginning to review it. If approved, it could be the first time a wind farm has been given permission to legally kill eagles.

Members of the Public Utilities Commission inquired why the company did not submit their plan with the permit in hand; they said that would give them more confidence that everything that could be done, would be done.

Commissioner J. Dennis O'Brien was especially critical. He objected to the company's claims that neighbors had been deliberately attracting eagles by placing food out for them — a suggestion many neighbors angrily deny.

"Your plan assumes there has been eagle baiting: that is at best a disputed fact and to state in your plan that that is a fact is not accurate in my view." O'Brien said.

O'Brien also criticized the company's decision to use a different model to predict harm to eagles than the one favored by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. That added confusion and uncertainty, he said.