Animals and Wind

A Different Kind of Debate in Hyannis Last Night
The recent oil spill from a barge supplying the canal power plant was on many minds last night. Above workers remove a dead duck covered in oil, cct photo

By Jack Coleman

Several dozen people who turned out for a public forum last night on the effects of wind turbines on wildlife witnessed something seldom seen in the three-year plus debate over the Cape Wind project - expert opinion devoid of hyperbole and emotion.

The forum, held at the Hyannis Golf Club, drew environmentalists and wildlife specialists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston University, the International Wildlife Coalition and the Humane Society of the United States.

Host Rob Sennott ran a tight ship

Moderating the forum, and running a tight ship, was Barnstable Patriot publisher Rob Sennott. All of those speaking last night were asked to focus on a specific area of potential impacts from the 130 wind turbines that Cape Wind wants to build in Nantucket Sound.

"Pounded by storms, raked by strong currents, resulting in hardier species than would be found in a more peaceful setting"

George Hampson, a retired scientist who worked for nearly 40 years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, described potential impacts to the "benthos" - the invertebrates, fish and algae living on the sea bottom. Hampson predicted "high mortality" of benthic creatures during construction of the Cape Wind turbines, but due to the "high energy out there" - the nearly constant wind and waves - "they would soon recover."

He described Nantucket Sound as "pounded by storms" and raked by strong currents, resulting in hardier species than would be found in a more peaceful setting. "My feeling is that they would easily recover from the impact," Hampson said. But, he added, this pertains only to "small benthic" species and not larger ones, such as lobsters. "That's an aspect of the project I worry about," Hampson said.

Meeting at a Higher Plane

"The sponsors of this forum wish to affirm our support for the development and use of sustainable energy sources," Host Rob Sennott read from a "Statement of Purpose" at the start of the meeting. "

As environmentalists and wildlife professionals, we are fully cognizant of the global challenges that face us; the impact of global warming, the security and ecosystem threats posed by our reliance on a petro-chemically based energy system and the extinction spasm that is shredding the web of life.

"In our estimation, the debate over development of offshore wind resources has degenerated to the lowest level of public discourse," Sennott said.

"To us the question is not whether we should pursue wind power as an integral part of our society. This is a foregone conclusion. To us, it is a question of how and where ... we support scientifically informed and reasoned social discourse."

"That's an area that has not been paid attention to." Daniel Morast, of the International Wildlife Coalition, said monitoring of the Cape Wind project, during and after construction, was inadequate, as described in the project's draft environmental impact statement released last November.

A clause in the DEIS refers to post-construction monitoring undertaken "in consultation" between the developer and state and federal agencies, Morast said. "It begs the question, when is the public going to see the details?" Morast said. The DEIS also has what Morast considers an inadequate environmental monitoring program. The report also calls for only one observer during construction to watch for protected species, which Morast said was insufficient.

Different Opinions on Birds

The Cape Wind web site states, "When designed properly, wind turbines are much safer to birds than other sources of energy production. The nationâ??s reliance on fossil fuel energy has brought enormous harm to birds from oil spills, habitat destruction due to practices like 'mountaintop removal' mining, and mercury contamination of the fish they eat."

Looking at potential harm to birds, Dr. Rebbecca Harris of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine said of the project, "I think we know just enough to know that we don't know enough." Migrating songbirds are at risk from the turbines, Harris said, since they fly between 300 and 2,000 feet, within the lower range of the turbine blades' 417-foot top height. "These songbirds are known to be attracted to red lights," Harris said.

Marine bird experts point out that by definition seabirds are foraging a the water's surface hundreds of feet below the blades, and nitrating birds fly hundreds of feet above them.

A far greater threat to birds comes from tall buildings and cell phone and power line towers

The Federal Aviation Administration would require red lights on the turbines as a safety precaution for pilots. Waterfowl and seabirds, on the other hand, typically fly at altitudes of less than 300 feet, which would also make them vulnerable to collisions with the blades. To better gauge the potential threat to birds, more monitoring of Nantucket Sound is needed, Harris said, at least three years. "One year is not enough."

Harris showed a photo of dozens of birds killed in collisions with a "tower" in upstate New York, but pointed out in response to a question that the tower was not a land-based wind turbine. A far greater threat to birds comes from tall buildings and cell phone and power line towers, she said, with some estimates placing mortality at more than one million birds annually in North America. "There are fewer examples of mass bird mortality with land-based wind turbines," Harris said.

"I have never seen any whales on Horseshoe Shoal."

Bats and Blades - a "No Show"

Dr. Thomas Kunz, a bat expert from Boston University, said pre-construction monitoring of bat behavior in Nantucket Sound was "very limited." Little empirical data exists showing bats using the Sound for habitat or migration, but fishermen have seen bats many miles out to sea, Kunz said. "We don't know the trends of most populations," he said.  Some researchers have found that wind turbines appear to attract bats, since the towers can look like poles where bats roost, Kunz said. Bats can also be disoriented by turbulence and electromagnetic fields from the blades, Kunz said.

Sharon Young, of the Humane Society of the United States, said the impact to marine mammals during construction of the turbines would be dramatic.  The "impulsive sound" of pile driving would range from 150 to 236 decibels, she said. The federal government has set a threshold of 180 decibels as "injurious to marine mammals," Young said.

Empirical Evidence challenged

The "zone of physical effect" on wildlife during construction would extend 10 miles, she said. Young also said that satellite telemetry and "direct observation" shows that whales pass through Nantucket Sound, challenging an assertion made earlier in the meeting by former Barnstable town councilor Richard Elrick, who has worked as a ferry captain on Nantucket Sound for nearly 30 years, that "I have never seen any whales on Horseshoe Shoal."  "We need to remember that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," Young said. Young also cited the "precautionary principle," a familiar dictum to scientists - "if you don't know, you want to be cautious, not aggressive."

Interestingly the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound's 990 IRS form for 2003 indicates that the Alliance donated $7,500 to the Humane Society, noteworthy considering the fact that that same report showed the Alliance ended the year over $800,000 in debt.

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