A wind power project proposed on the lower Eastern Shore that's struggling to overcome objections from the Navy has a new, airborne worry — bald eagles.
Federal wildlife biologists say the population of the once-rare national bird has grown so much that there are about 400 bald eagles along the mid-Atlantic coast, including 30 nests within 10 miles of the project in Somerset County, and three in the immediate vicinity.
Declaring the area "extremely attractive" to the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned the developer of the Great Bay wind project that it "appears to present significant risk to eagles" and urged it to scale back its plans.
The agency estimated that the original plan to put up 60 turbines east of Princess Anne could kill up to 43 eagles a year. The developer's experts disputed that, projecting deaths of 15 to 18 birds annually, but the agency said even that lower rate would result in more eagle deaths than any other wind project proposed nationwide.
"We can't stop a project; that's not really what we're interested in," said Sarah Nystrom, eagle coordinator for the wildlife service's Northeast regional office in Hadley, Mass. "But we will say, 'Hey, there's a lot of risk here, and it's not in your interest to proceed.'"
Adam Cohen, vice president of development for Pioneer Green Energy, the Austin, Texas-based company planning the Somerset wind project, contended the risks of eagles being killed by turbines are minimal. But the company has scaled back to 50 turbines and agreed to build them in two phases.
"The more turbines you get out there, the better the economics of the project," Cohen said. But, he added, "we want to make sure we're doing this as responsibly as we can."
The wind energy project already has faced criticism from Navy officials, who warn that the turbine's rotating blades would interfere with radar used at Naval Air Station Patuxent River across the bay in St. Mary's County. That issue still is being debated on the state and federal levels.
In danger of extinction 40 years ago because of habitat loss, illegal hunting and contamination with the pesticide DDT, the nation's bald eagle population has rebounded so well under federal protections the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 2007.
While no longer facing extinction, eagles still are protected from harm by federal law. Violators face civil penalties of up to $5,000 and one year in jail, and authorities may seek criminal prosecution, with a maximum sentence of two years in prison or fine of $250,000.
Wind projects that pose a significant risk to protected species can apply for federal approval of a so-called "incidental take," or occasional death, of the animals. But developers must show they've taken precautions to avoid or minimize the risks, and they are expected to propose conservation measures to mitigate any harm they might cause.
Nystrom said there haven't been many reports of bald eagles being hit by wind turbines, which may indicate that threats to the birds are not so significant, or that there just haven't been many wind projects built in bald eagle territory. The federal agency based its estimate of turbine-related deaths on what's been seen with golden eagles elsewhere in the country, which she acknowledged may not be comparable.
"We'd rather make an error on the conservative side," she said. "If the take's actually higher than we predicted, you either have to shut turbines down or put in place other minimization measures at the last minute."
Cohen said Pioneer Green Energy already had planned to build its turbines away from the water, steering clear of state regulations on development along the shore of the bay and its tributaries. Eagles tend to frequent the waterfront. The project's layout has been tweaked, he said, to increase distance between turbines and known eagle nests.
The problem, Nystrom said, is that biologists don't know how big a buffer is needed for bald eagles, which can roam over thousands of acres to find food.
Biologists also have suggested the wind developers could reduce the risk of eagles flying near turbines by reducing available food sources around the structures, such as road kill or other dead animals.
"Eagles are kind of opportunistic – they'll feed on what's available," Nystrom said. The Shore's many poultry farms also may attract eagles, she said, when growers toss their dead chickens in open manure storage sheds.
Cohen said the company is looking to work with farmers on ways to compost their dead birds..
"I think we've done everything we can to address their concerns," Cohen said.
While saying his company wants to do the right thing environmentally, Cohen argued that bald eagles face a greater threat from rising sea level reducing habitat. Wind energy can help by reducing reliance on climate-warming fossil fuels, he said.
He also pointed out that restrictions on turbine locations would cost landowners income in Maryland's poorest county. For example, he said, the company would place two more turbines on Phillip and Donna Marshall's 1,200-acre farm on the Big Annemessex River if it wasn't for the nests.
"It's a renewable resource,'' said Donna Marshall, 48, "It has a very small footprint. It's not going to hurt the environment."
She said the income they could get from a 30-year lease for turbines — including a percentage of the revenue from the electricity generated — would help diversify the couple's income from raising chickens and grain and from her husband's crabbing and seafood business.
Phillip Marshall, who is 63, said he doesn't have any plans to retire. But he said he figures his wife will outlive him. "She'll have something to fall back on when I'm gone."
While Cohen believes the Somerset wind project can go forward without harming eagles, there is more uncertainty about overcoming the Navy's politically potent objections.
The Patuxent River air base has the Navy's only system for analyzing how its planes appear on an enemy's radar, according to Christopher Jarboe, team lead for the sustainability office of the Atlantic Test Ranges. "It's a measurement system, it's not a tracking radar, so it's very sensitive," he said.
"Even if the turbines aren't in the main beam of the radar, if they're off to the side, there's enough energy to bounce back," Jarboe said. "It makes it impossible to get good measurements."
Cohen said he's confident that something can be worked out, but Jarboe said any changes to the radar to filter out turbine interference likely would take years to figure out.
Legally, the Pentagon can't block the project, but lawmakers are skittish about anything that would reduce the number of personnel or federal spending at the economically important installation. Last year, at the behest of southern Maryland legislators, the General Assembly passed a law that gives the Navy a greater chance to have its concerns heard by the Public Service Commission, which must approve the project. Cohen said his company is getting ready to apply to the panel, and hopes to get the approvals in time to start work this year.
Rex Simpkins, president of Somerset's board of commissioners, said local officials believe the project could boost a local economy still reeling from damage caused by Superstorm Sandy.
Cohen estimated that the $200 million project would generate $2 million to $3 million a year in tax revenue for the county — "new money they can invest in county roads and schools.''
But, given the Navy's objections, Simpkins said the county has withheld formal endorsement of the project and tabled a local ordinance that would establish how far from homes the turbines would have to be built.