Bird conservation groups are challenging an environmental assessment (EA) of the proposed Icebreaker Wind offshore project in Lake Erie.
Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) and American Bird Conservancy (ABC) reject the assessment’s claim that the planned Icebreaker wind facility would have “little to no impact” on birds and bats. The groups cite the importance of Lake Erie to migratory birds such as the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler.
The draft EA, prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Army Corps of Engineers, was based on several studies conducted by consultants to the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo), the consortium developing the project.
The project’s six wind turbines would be located approximately 8-10 miles off the coast of Cleveland. The MHI Vestas turbines have a nameplate capacity rating of 3.45 MW, resulting in a combined generating capacity of up to 20.7 MW. The project would include an approximately 12-mile-long, submerged transmission line to bring the electricity generated by the turbines to Cleveland Public Power’s onshore Lake Road Substation.
“Based on our exhaustive review of the EA, we see no evidence to support the claim that the project poses ‘little to no risk’ to birds and bats,” says Kimberly Kaufman, BSBO’s executive director.
The organizations highlighted five major concerns in their comments, which were submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers and the DOE:
1) Five recent advanced radar studies conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded vast numbers of migratory birds and bats within 5-10 miles of the Great Lakes shorelines, including Lake Erie. In addition, this is a Globally Important Bird Area: The Ohio waters of the Central Basin of Lake Erie have been registered with BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society as globally significant habitat for birds.
2) Dismissing threats to the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, the assessment cites outdated studies and ignores new data from birds fitted with radio transmitters. The data shows that the species uses the airspace of central Lake Erie almost exclusively for its fall migration.
3) To reach the “little to no impact” conclusion, the industry assessors relied on limited visual surveys conducted only during daytime and in good weather to conclude that migrating birds fly at a height sufficient to avoid the turbines’ blades. However, many songbirds and most bats migrate at night. The risk they face from wind energy facilities is likely greater during conditions of high winds, heavy rain, fog or low cloud cover, which can affect flight altitude and bring them within the rotor-swept area of the turbines.
4) The assessment erroneously concludes that migratory birds and bats avoid crossing Lake Erie, instead flying around it. Kaufman says, “Anyone watching birds on the shore of Lake Erie can see that birds do, in fact, fly over the water. Studies also show with certainty that given good physical condition, large numbers of migratory birds and bats cross the lake, many of them making the long journey after stopping at the shoreline to rest and feed.”
5) The EA fails to acknowledge similar planned projects throughout the Great Lakes that could increase the cumulative impacts on birds and bats – an evaluation required by the National Environmental Policy Act. What happens with the Icebreaker project could set an important precedent for the Great Lakes region on both sides of the border. Ontario, for instance, has placed a moratorium on any open-water wind facilities in Lake Erie until Icebreaker is decided.
BSBO and ABC hope that these concerns will be reflected in any future assessments of the environmental impact of Icebreaker and other proposed offshore wind in the Great Lakes. A public comment period closed earlier this month, and a final EA could be issued in the next few months, according to the groups.