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CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

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Action Timeline

November 2003 – Over objections of conservation groups and state and federal wildlife agencies, Alameda County illegally renewed 20 conditional-use permits for indefinite operations of the majority of wind turbines at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, with no environmental impact review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The county permits ignored the recommendations of raptor experts to add permit conditions to reduce bird kills and to compensate for ongoing harm to birds.

November 21, 2003 – The Center appealed Alameda County’s illegal renewal of permits for more than 1,500 wind turbines at Altamont Pass, which lacked any mitigation measures to reduce documented raptor mortality.

January 12, 2004 – After it became clear that energy companies wouldn’t implement meaningful bird-fatality reduction measures, the Center filed suit against energy companies at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, including Florida energy producer FPL Group, for the illegal ongoing killing of tens of thousands of protected birds by wind turbines at the site.

February, 2004 – Alameda County illegally approved 16 more permits without environmental review or measures to alleviate avian mortality. The Center appealed these permits.

August 2004 – A new report by the California Energy Commission documented the extent of the avian carnage at Altamont Pass — more than 1,300 birds of prey killed annually by wind turbines. The Center suspended its lawsuit against Altamont energy companies to allow them to respond to a suite of measures proposed in the Energy Commission’s report that would reduce bird kills.

November 1, 2004 – The Center provided a roadmap for Alameda County to alter wind turbine permits to reduce bird kills while maintaining power production, but county-run appeal negotiations over permit conditions made it clear that the energy companies were not willing to implement Energy Commission recommendations and the county would not require them. The Center filed a new lawsuit against the companies.

February 17, 2005 – An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that the Center lawsuit could go forward. The judge also invited the Alameda County District Attorney to join the lawsuit to pursue the case on behalf of the public, which was never done.

March 30, 2005 – The county judge ruled that the energy companies would not be required to provide restitution for harmed or killed wildlife and would not be subject to any monetary penalties for killing massive numbers of protected birds.

April 2005 – The Los Angeles Times revealed that the office of former Congressman Richard Pombo pressured the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to suspend voluntary environmental guidelines aimed at reducing bird mortality at wind turbines, which were opposed by the wind-power industry, without disclosing that Pombo's family had a substantial financial stake in wind energy leases at Altamont Pass. The Center led conservation groups in calling for a Congressional ethics investigation of Pombo’s office.

July 2005 – In response to false energy company claims of inability to afford to implement California Energy Commission bird mortality reduction recommendations, the Center published a financial analysis of the Altamont energy companies’ operations and profits, showing the measures to be affordable. The Altamont energy companies reaped an unexpected $53 million windfall in wind power revenues from 2000 to 2004 at Altamont due to the manipulated California “energy crisis” and its aftermath. The Center’s analysis revealed why energy companies are unwilling to proceed with repowering projects (replacing obsolete first-generation turbines that are lethal to birds with newer technology that is sited and configured in locations less risky to birds): greed. Post-energy crisis prices plus wind farm subsidies and tax credits made it profitable for energy companies to continue running bird-killing turbines rather than replacing them with safer, more efficient windmills.

September 2005 – Alameda County partially rejected the Center permit appeals and approved the renewal of 29 permits covering more than 3,600 wind turbines at Altamont Pass. The County did, however, add numerous additional permit conditions and mitigations aimed at reducing ongoing bird kills. The permits, while significantly flawed, were a definite improvement over the original permits. Permit conditions included appointing a supposedly “neutral third party” to monitor avian deaths and an environmental review of the wind turbine permits.

October 2005 – Conservation groups Audubon and CARE filed lawsuits against Alameda County over the renewal of permits at Altamont Pass without conducting an environmental impact report. However, since the new conditions of approval already included a commitment by the county to conduct this review beginning in 2008, the Center declined to join the Audubon case, concerned that its weak legal claims could derail the existing Center lawsuit.

February 2006 – In a judicial sleight of hand, the Center lawsuit was transferred out of complex litigation court and joined with the Audubon lawsuit.

April 3, 2006 – Promoting a clear conflict of interest, Alameda County attempted to appoint long-time wind-industry consultant and biased advocate WEST, Inc. to serve as the “neutral” scientific monitor for avian deaths at Altamont. The Center rallied public outcry over this clear conflict of interest, forcing the county to instead adopt a team of consultants including WEST and the University of California.

October 17, 2006 – The Alameda County court overturned previous complex litigation court decisions that the Center lawsuit could go forward; it dismissed our lawsuit against the bird-killing wind companies at Altamont Pass. The court ruled that there was no legal standing for public trust litigation, contrary to more than a century of California Supreme Court rulings establishing that California’s wildlife is the property of the state’s citizens.

January 5, 2007 – Alameda County announced a disastrous settlement agreement with Audubon over its lawsuit. The parties proposed revising and gutting the new permit conditions with only three days for the public to read and understand the settlement. The agreement gave away all the significant mortality-reduction measures in the permits revised in 2005, and its centerpiece was a so-called “50-percent mortality reduction” that would actually require energy companies to reduce mortality by no more than 17 percent, and possibly not at all. The Center opposed the agreement because it could have allowed many more deaths to occur than the permit conditions it replaced would have.

January 10, 2007 – The Center and raptor experts submitted comments on the fatal flaws of the Audubon agreement and urged the county to reject the agreement.

January 11, 2007 – The Alameda County supervisors, with the encouragement of Audubon and over the objections of the Center, approved the fatally flawed, loophole-ridden agreement.

February 2010 – Raptor-fatality studies showed that energy companies had failed to implement recommended bird mortality-reduction measures and failed to significantly reduce the number of wind turbine bird deaths at Altamont, as required by the 2007 settlement agreement. In fact, raptor deaths at the turbines had increased significantly since the agreement. The county’s Scientific Review Committee concluded that the best way to reduce bird mortality without removing wind power altogether was “repowering” or replacing old-generation turbines with new turbines that, if sited appropriately, would kill fewer birds. Energy companies continued their efforts to implement a state “conservation plan” that would keep them from prosecution under state wildlife protection laws; they also lobbied to expand the footprint and megawatts of wind power produced at Altamont, despite increased bird kills.

December 2010 – The California Attorney General’s Office announced a settlement agreement with the largest energy company at Altamont requiring 40 percent of the wind farm’s turbines to be “repowered” by 2015. New turbines were to be sited in less-risky areas for birds, according to scientific guidelines. Because bird kills would likely continue even after repowering, the company promised to make mitigation payments to local land-protection agencies to protect nearby raptor habitat. Although the Center didn’t sign this agreement, our efforts contributed to the outcome, and the settlement included many measures for which we had advocated.


Photo © Gene Ichinose