A West Virginia wind farm developer has agreed to scale back its project and other conditions to settle a lawsuit alleging the rotating blades pose a threat to endangered bats. The same issue now appears to be emerging - or re-emerging - over a wind farm proposed in western Maryland.
In a deal announced Wednesday, Beech Ridge Energy LLC of Rockville said it is now free to resume construction on its wind farm in Greenbrier County, W.Va., though the total number of turbines would be reduced from 124 to around 100. There already are 40 built along the ridge.
In December, U.S. District Judge Roger Titus in Greenbelt had halted construction on the project, saying it posed risks to federally endangered Indiana bats.
Beech Ridge, an affiliate of Invenergy Wind LLC in Chicago, said it will seek "incidental take permits" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as ordered by Judge Titus, to mitigate any harm its turbines may do to the rare bats. In the meantime, the company agreed to operate the turbines round-the-clock only during the bats' hibernation period in winter, and to run them just in daylight the rest of the year.
The Animal Welfare Institute and other groups that had filed a lawsuit over the project's impact on the bats agreed not to oppose the take permits. The company dropped its plan to appeal Judge Titus' rulling. To read the settlement, go here. (Photo above is of another West Virginia wind farm, for illustration purposes only.)
Meanwhile, opponents of wind farms in western Maryland have raised the same issue, though they have yet to go to court over it.
In an "open letter" to Garrett County's commissioners, Oakland lawyer Kimberly Connaughton and two other residents say a national expert on bats presented testimony several years ago that Indiana bats were present near a wind farm proposed on Backbone Mountain near the West Virginia border. Other wildlife experts have testified about the presence there of other species deemed rare, threatened or endangered in Maryland, she points out.
That testimony came out several years ago when the Public Service Commission was reviewing a wind farm proposed by Synergics Wind Energy of Annapolis. The legislature subsequently stripped the commission of its authority to review the environmental impacts of wind facilities of 70 megawatts' capacity or smaller. The commission approved the project in November, though opponents complained the panel had been handcuffed at the behest of the politically connected head of the wind firm, Wayne Rogers, who is former chairman of the state Democratic party.
Though state law now limits the state's oversight of the project, the Oakland lawyer writes that the county is barred by one of its own ordinances from issuing a building permit if the project would harm any federally protected species. Local law also requires landowners and developers to work with state and federal agencies to minimize harm to rare, threatened and endangered species, she adds.
She calls on the county not to grant any permits for the wind farm until the developer gets a "taking" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and to ask the agency for a formal review of the project.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Synergics, said the company already had shifted the location of some of its 20 planned turbines to preserve habitat for species considered rare in Maryland. He contended that there wasn't any habitat used by federally protected Indiana bats near the proposed wind farm. And he asserted that the wind farm enjoys broad support among government and business leaders in the area.
Connaughton said by telephone that she and her husband, Stephan Moylan, live within a short drive of Backbone Mountain. They and Eric Trippy, the third letter signer, formed a group opposing wind farms there several years ago. She said that "we are discussing our legal options" should the county reject their request.
John Bambacus, a former state senator and mayor from Frostburg opposed to the ridgetop wind farms, made a similar request earlier. He said last week that county officials have yet to respond. In the meantime, he is pressing western Maryland legislators for an attorney general's opinion on whether the state Department of Natural Resources still has authority to intervene in wind projects to protect state-listed rare plants and animals from potential harm.
(2006 Baltimore Sun photo by John Makeley)