WASHINGTON –- Duke Energy's renewables division will pay $1 million in fines and restitution for unlawfully killing golden eagles and other threatened birds with its wind turbines, the Department of Justice announced Friday in its first criminal enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The company admitted killing 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows, at two sites in Converse County, Wyo., from 2009 to 2013.
"This case represents the first criminal conviction under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for unlawful avian takings at wind projects," Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.
Duke "acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths," but since then has taken steps to "minimize the hazard," Dreher said.
The company's plea agreement with the government requires it to pay the fine and to put in place a plan to prevent bird deaths at its four commercial wind farms in Wyoming. Duke Energy Renewables will be on probation for five years. The penalty will be paid to conservation groups that include the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“Our goal is to provide the benefits of wind energy in the most environmentally responsible way possible,” Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, said in a statement. “We deeply regret the impacts to golden eagles at two of our wind facilities. We have always self reported all incidents, and from the time we discovered the first fatality, we’ve been working closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to take proactive steps to correct the problem.”
The American Wind Energy Association, the lobbying group representing the industry, issued a statement arguing that wind energy's impact on birds is not that significant. "This agreement will help advance the knowledge of wind wildlife interactions to further reduce the industry's relatively small impacts," the group said.
"No form of energy generation, or human activity for that matter, is completely free of impacts and wind energy is no exception," said the statement. It pointed to a 2009 study from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority that found that wind energy has a lower impact overall on birds than other energy sources.
Bird and wildlife conservationists often favor renewable power, but wind turbines can have a brutal effect on birds without mitigation. George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy, acknowledged this tension in a statement.
“Wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds," Fenwick said. "We are pro-wind and pro-alternative energy, but development needs to be bird smart. The unfortunate reality is that the flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread.”