Duke Energy has agreed to pay $1 million in fines as part of the Justice Department’s first criminal case against a wind-power company for the deaths of protected birds.
A subsidiary of the company, Duke Energy Renewables, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Wyoming on Friday to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company pleaded guilty to killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other birds at its Top of the World and Campbell Hill wind farms outside Casper, Wyo. All the deaths, which included hawks, blackbirds, wrens and sparrows, occurred from 2009 to 2013.
“Wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds,” said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, which supports properly sited wind farms. “The unfortunate reality is that the flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread.”
In the plea agreement, the company said it will pay the fines to several conservation groups, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The company also must implement a plan to prevent more bird deaths, officials said.
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“In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths,” said Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s environment and natural-resources division.
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornadolike vortexes. Eagles are especially vulnerable because they don’t look up as they scan the ground for food, not noticing the blades until it’s too late.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind-power facilities. About half a dozen have been referred to the Justice Department.
Birds are often killed when they fly into wind turbines, meteorological towers and power facilities associated with wind-power projects, federal officials said. The golden eagle, which is named for its golden feathers and has a wingspan of about 6 feet, is commonly found in the western Plains.
Duke Energy said it is installing radar technology to detect birds and using field biologists to look for eagles and determine when turbines need to be shut down.
“Our goal is to provide the benefits of wind energy in the most environmentally responsible way possible,” said Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables.