Environmentalists divided over wind turbines, endangered bats

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Retiree David Cowan, a longtime caving fanatic, is asking a federal judge to halt construction of the Beech Ridge windfarm, arguing that the windfarm will kill endangered bats. The lawsuit pits Chicago-based Invenergy Inc., a company producing green energy, against environmentalists who say the price to nature is too great.

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By Maria Glod
Thursday, October 22, 2009

GREENBRIER COUNTY, W.VA. -- Workers atop mountain ridges are putting together 389-foot windmills with massive blades that will turn Appalachian breezes into energy. Retiree David Cowan is fighting to stop them.

Because of the bats.

Cowan, 72, a longtime caving fanatic who grew to love bats as he slithered through tunnels from Maine to Maui, is asking a federal judge in Maryland to halt construction of the Beech Ridge wind farm. The lawsuit pits Chicago-based Invenergy, a company that produces "green" energy, against environmentalists who say the cost to nature is too great.

The rare green vs. green case went to trial Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

It is the first court challenge to wind power under the Endangered Species Act, lawyers on both sides say. With President Obama's goal of doubling renewable energy production by 2012, wind and solar farms are expanding rapidly. That has sparked battles to reach a balance between the benefits of clean energy and the impact on birds, bats and even the water supply.

At the heart of the Beech Ridge case is the Indiana bat, a brownish-gray creature that weighs about as much as three pennies and, wings outstretched, measures about eight inches. A 2005 estimate concluded that there were 457,000 of them, half the number in 1967, when they were first listed as endangered.

"Any kind of energy development is going to have environmental impacts that are going to concern somebody," said John D. Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in environmental law and isn't involved in the suit. "This has been an issue for the environmental community. They are enthusiastic; at the same time, they realize there are these adverse impacts."

Indiana bats hibernate in limestone caves within several miles of the wind farm, which would provide energy to tens of thousands of households. The question before the judge: Would the bats fly in the path of the 122 turbines that will be built along a 23-mile stretch of mountaintop?

Eric R. Glitzenstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in his opening statement that both sides agree the windmills will kill more than 130,000 bats of all types over the next 20 years.

"The question comes down to whether there is some reason to think Indiana bats will escape that fate," he said. "The position of the defendants is, 'Let's roll the dice and see what happens.' We believe that the rolling-the-dice approach to the Endangered Species Act is not in keeping with what Congress had in mind."

Cowan and other plaintiffs, including the D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, support wind power as one way to mitigate climate change. But they say this setting, a lush rural area where coal and timber industries once dominated, is the wrong one.

They say Indiana bats are likely to fly near the turbines in the fall as they migrate to caves from forests, where they spend spring and summer. Some biologists who analyzed recordings at the site say they are nearly certain that Indiana bats made some of the calls.


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