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Wind turbines like these near Altamont Pass have been blamed for the deaths of thousands of birds.
If we told you that a poorly regulated energy facility killed thousands of birds this year, you could assume we were talking about BP's Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico. But we also could be talking about the Altamont Pass wind farm east of San Francisco, which has been killing thousands of migratory birds and protected raptors since the 1980s.
Despite being one of the nation's earliest renewable-energy facilities and being built with good intentions, the thousands of wind turbines have long ceased being a source of pride for environmentalists and are an embarrassment to the wind energy industry.
Not only have the bird kills at Altamont split environmentalists, but they've also made it more difficult to get much-needed alternative energy projects approved. Every impact study now includes a cautionary tale about avian mortality at Altamont. Moreover, supporters of the oil and gas industries enjoy shedding crocodile tears about the dangers to birds that wind energy present.
But in the coming weeks, Alameda County officials will have the opportunity to finally address the problems at Altamont by approving a new plan to reduce bird deaths.
The same things that make the Altamont Pass good for wind turbines also make it good for birds. The breezes blowing over these 50,000 acres make it a perfect migratory pathway, and grasslands under the turbines are full of small mammals that attract birds of prey.
A recent study estimates that the Altamont Pass turbines kill between 7,500 and 9,300 birds each year. Many of the affected species are protected under state and federal laws, including the golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and burrowing owl. These birds are spectacular examples of a wild California - part of our identity as a state - that we must protect.
The killing of these birds should have triggered action long ago by the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - as well as local regulatory bodies. But after years of inaction by these agencies, four Bay Area Audubon chapters - Golden Gate, Santa Clara Valley, Ohlone and Marin - and Californians for Renewable Energy sued Alameda County and the wind companies in 2006 demanding that an environmental impact report be completed before operations at Altamont continued.
The suit was difficult for the plaintiffs because they understood that renewable energy is necessary to minimize the impacts of climate change, which will have dire consequences for birds. Wanting to encourage efforts to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the plaintiffs arrived at a settlement that gave the wind companies three years to reduce bird deaths by at least 50 percent. If that goal was not reached by November 2009, then the county would implement an adaptive management plan for the entire Altamont Pass to minimize bird deaths, which would require the wind farms to shut down their turbines for 3 1/2 months during the winter.
Unfortunately, the wind companies - NextEra Energy Resources, enXco and AES Wind Generation - have dragged their feet at every turn, and the regulatory agencies haven't compelled them to do otherwise. A draft study of bird deaths at Altamont shows little, if any, progress toward the 50 percent reduction.
This is the county's moment to do the right thing.
If the county is strong, it can address the problem of bird deaths at Altamont without sacrificing any renewable energy. Most of the 4,500 wind turbines there are old, inefficient models that because of their height and poor location are particularly dangerous for birds. Newer wind turbines are taller and the blades turn more slowly, presenting less danger. Even better, they produce much more power than the older models, so a "repowered" Altamont will have fewer turbines placed in lower-risk spots and still generate the same amount of electricity.
But this won't happen unless Alameda County officials take a hard stance right now and reverse their tacit trading of birds for "green power."
Nell Newman (daughter of Paul Newman) is the founder of Newman's Own Organics and a raptor advocate. Graham Chisholm is the executive director of Audubon California.
This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle