03 February 2009

Couple Strive to Protect Rural Business from Turbine Development

With the ongoing rush for developing wind power, potential changes have had a great personal impact for a couple in Nebraska.

Ed and Maxine Wehling at their rural Custer County home and business. Photo provided by the couple.

For Ed and Maxine Wehling, operating a vineyard business in rural Custer County, a proposal for a 60-80 turbine wind farm would place their property right in the midst of the turbines and distribution lines.

The project is being developed by BP Alternative Energy NA Inc.

“We were asked by BP representative Laurie Mazer to host the overhead transmission lines, to run South on our ground, which extends beyond the copy of this map,” the Wehlings explained in an email. ”We asked Ms. Mazer if the lines could be buried, and discussed with her our concerns that overhead lines could be problematic to birds. BP declined to do so.”

“The approach BP initially used was to quietly sign up land leases from our neighbors, and we were asked not to discuss the project with others. Many neighbors are just now learning that a project has been proposed since around 2005, when the first meteorological tower was installed. Orion Energy was the original developer, later bought by BP.

“Mazer only presented the financial gain and positive aspects of the wind project to us, so we feel there has been a lack of education and awareness for our community that would include impacts to endangered wildlife.”

The Wehlings have concerns for migratory birds that they can see are not being addressed by the project developers. Their start for becoming informed on the issue began with gathering pertinent information from regulatory agencies and from a variety of resources available on the internet.

The project site is within the migratory corridor for the endangered whooping crane, and numerous other bird species of concern, according to information prepared by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and sent to the project developers in response for a consultation.

The agency said: “There are multiple recent records of the state and federally endangered whooping cranes in the proposed project area and in the surrounding areas” ... “Multiple records for the past ten years, and a family group using the area just outside of Merna this spring, confirm that this area is important habitat during migration. Placement of turbines in the proposed area could result in crane strikes and bird deaths.”

Also: “Placement of wind turbines in this area is a concern, as it is in the migration pathway of whooping cranes, as well as many shorebirds and songbirds that use the central flyway migration corridor.”

The agency letter said: “The Commission recommends that you consider alternate locations for the proposed project.”

Area for proposed turbine project in western Custer County, showing the Wehling property - the black box. Image courtesy of Ed and Maxine Wehling.

The Wehling’s agree and have been actively involved in working to not have the wind farm placed in Custer County.

“Our start for becoming informed on the potential threat to migrating birds was from websites such as National Wind Watch and Better Plan, Wisconsin where we met individuals such as Jim and Cheryl Congdon from Wisconsin, who fought to save the Horicon Marsh habitat from industrial turbines being placed one mile from whooping crane habitat.”

There is also an important report on considerations for siting turbine farms in Wyoming that shows the extent of natural resources that can be impacted, and an analysis that indicates suitable places for installing turbines Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “This is the type of report that is needed for Nebraska,” they commented.

They read the report - Whooping Cranes and Wind Farms - Guidance for Assessment of Impacts – prepared by Tom Stehn, whooping crane biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, that discusses how large-scale development of wind farms in the Great Plains migratory corridor of the crane could created numerous hazards during migratory flights.

“A safe migration corridor is essential for protecting the cranes,” the Wehling’s said, “and this includes our area.”

They have also been in contact with other local FWS officials to express their concerns, and been involved in numerous other ways in their conservation effort:

  • Meetings of the county zoning committee when activities related to the proposed project have been discussed. “We have made the effort to attend these meetings, and have encouraged neighbors to do the same, as they can.”
  • Contacting state and national elected officials, including state senator Deb Fischer numerous times via email. Also, Congressman Adrian Smith, Sen. Ben Nelson, called Sen. Michael Johanns, and gave info to Gov. Dave Heineman.
  • Contacted Nebraska Public Power District, whose representative has basically said that it is the wind developer's responsibility to comply with endangered species act, etc. “Since NPPD may eventually purchase a wind project, they should be actively involved with efforts to make sure there is no potential for whooping cranes to strike a turbine.”
  • Visiting with a BP representative to learn that the company may want to participate in a Habitat Conservation Plan {HCP}, but with potential plans for construction of 2010. “We are not confident all impact studies, mitigation will be in place. BP utilizes the environmental consulting firm Western EcoSystems from Wyoming. We did contact them by email but no reply.”
  • Contacted several environmental advocacy groups in Nebraska, and have gotten verbal support, but not a lot of action on this issue.

The next meeting with the county zoning board is February 10th at the county courthouse when the installation of two additional meteorological will be considered.

The Wehlings, added that the tower installed in 2005 needs to be moved 20' away from the road. “It never had a permit granted by the county, Orion Energy put the tower up on its own accord.”

“We support renewable energy, but at the same time want a balance with wildlife. It may be ironic that wind energy companies will say how ‘green’ their intentions are, but may ignore wildlife habitat.”

The Wehlings have not signed any contract to allow use of their property for the proposed development.

“BP Alternative should take the recommendations from wildlife authorities, and find an alternative site for the 60-80 wind turbine project. We feel, as more projects are commissioned, there needs to be a thorough evaluation on where projects are sited, with the long-term health of wildlife populations in mind.

“We hope the Obama administration will consider this as revenues are made available to promote wind developments in our state, and nation-wide.”

As the prospect for turbines looms over the Wehling’s country home, they know they are in a struggle to protect their life-style and the essential character of their business.

“We will do whatever we can to keep this project from being constructed when there are other more suitable sites to consider,” Ed and Maxine Wehling said. “Companies that develop green energy need to be certain their turbines are not a threat to migratory birds and do not ruin other important natural resources.”

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