New York State
For the birders and birds of the Empire State
Environmental Reviews: A Cautionary Tale
Andy Mason, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the October 2013 iissue of NY Birders
photo courtesy Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society
This past May, the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Soc. (DOAS) learned of an eight-turbine wind project in the Town of Walton, Delaware County. The lead agency - the Walton Town Planning Board - had given the project a SEQRA "negative declaration," which means a full environmental review would not be done.
Eight turbines is a relatively small wind project. However, the location is very near Cannonsville Reservoir where multiple pairs of Bald Eagles nest. This is also an area of high winter use by eagles, concentrating around the reservoir and the river above and below.
Golden Eagles are also present in winter. Occasionally, they
In addition to winter and breeding season risks, the area has
After contacting the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, DOAS was relieved to find the "negative declaration" was an error. Small town planning boards rarely have the experience or expertise to assess a project such as this. Eventually, the group acquired a memo on the raptor studies done at the site. These had been used as the basis for the developer's risk assessment for eagles. It was immediately clear there were significant errors in these surveys. Broadwinged Hawks were recorded during the first two weeks of March--a month before they arrive in New York. However, no Broad-winged Hawks were recorded in April, nor in September when they are the most common and visible raptor in the sky. Remarkably, 10% of the raptors recorded in the fall were Cooper's Hawks. These data should set off alarm bells for anyone familiar with the raptor migration in the northeast, yet no one seemed to have noticed.
While 31 migrating Golden Eagles were counted 10 miles upstream of the project in 2009, none were recorded in the project developer's 2012 spring surveys. They did, however, see a lot of Turkey Vultures. They recorded only two Golden Eagles in the fall despite the location south of Franklin Mountain.
Data from Golden Eagles fitted with GPS transmitters indicate the species concentrates in the project area. Dr. Trish Miller of West Virginia University created a map showing all telemetered Golden Eagle activity within 10 miles of the project since 2007. Twenty of the fifty telemetered eagles in eastern North America used this area during some part of the year.
More troubling still, none of the information on the nearby spring counts was considered by the developer. These data were readily available on-line through the Hawk Migration Association of North America's Hawkcount site and the DOAS website. Inexplicably, the developer's consultants compared their spring counts to count sites 50 miles north of the project, while ignoring counts 10.2 miles upstream. Not only did they not find Golden Eagles in a migratory concentration area, the species was not even included as a listed species on the original Environmental Assessment Form.
During communications with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NYSDEC, DOAS learned that both agencies had directed the project developer to contact the organization for any available avian information. Both agencies believed this had been done, but DOAS was never contacted. Prior to Audubon's involvement, USFWS was considering issuing a take permit for Bald Eagles for this project based on a fatally flawed risk assessment.
The regulators indicate they will be making recommendations to the Walton Planning Board to address shortcomings in the raptor surveys. However, lead agencies can choose to ignore the regulators and approve a project, even if the environmental review is clearly inadequate.
This is a cautionary tale. The agencies who evaluate these projects are understaffed and overwhelmed. They cannot be expected to examine large quantities of data in such detail that they find all aberrations and inconsistencies. It seems they also assume that the contractors who do this work use trained employees and act in good faith. However, as this case makes clear, oversight by citizens and interest groups is essential.
NYSOA member organizations are the local experts in their areas. If there is a project near you, please investigate. Monitoring the NYSDEC Environmental Notice Bulletin (ENB) is the best method of keeping aware of public participation opportunities for wind developments and other activities. You can receive an email notification every time the ENB is issued.
If studies and other information are not easily available from developers or local governments, the NYS Freedom of Information Law can be used to acquire documents. (See below)
Both DOAS and NYSOA are supporters of properly sited wind power. However, each project requires scrutiny by the public- -ask questions, make phone calls--look closely at reports and data. The regulators mean well but need our help. They have limited power over local boards. Members of the lead agency may be motivated by the promise of economic development for their town. Take responsibility for protecting the birds in your area.
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