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Environmentalists divided over wind turbines, endangered bats

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.

Any deaths would be a blow to a species that has been slow to rebound from the damage caused by pollution and human disturbance of their caves, partly because females have only one baby each year, the plaintiffs say.

Invenergy argues there is no sign that Indiana bats go to the ridge. When a consultant put up nets at or near the site in summer 2005 and 2006 to search for bats, no Indiana bats were captured. Some bat experts say that the females prefer lower areas when they have their young and that the ridge is too high. The company also stresses that there is no confirmed killing of an Indiana bat at any wind farm nationwide.

"A $300 million, environmentally friendly, clean, renewable energy project waiting to serve 50,000 households is in limbo over a rare bat nobody has ever seen on the project site," Clifford J. Zatz, a lawyer at Crowell & Moring, which represents the wind farm, said in court.

In an area scarred by mountaintop coal mining, company officials say, the wind farm is a friend to the environment. It also is bringing jobs to the region.

"We're a clean, green energy company," said Joseph Condo, vice president and general counsel. "The project will be able to deliver clean energy for years."

The project has twice survived challenges in the West Virginia Supreme Court, including complaints that it would mar the picturesque view. If the Greenbelt court does not intervene, the first set of 67 turbines is expected to be running next year. The state has required that bat and bird fatalities be tracked for three years.

The case probably will come down to a battle of bat experts.

There is no question turbines in other locations have killed tens of thousands of bats. Some strike blades. Others die from a condition known as barotrauma, similar to the bends that afflict divers. It occurs when the swirl of the blades creates low-pressure zones that cause the bats' tiny lungs to hemorrhage. Scientists and the industry are seeking ways to lessen the kills, including stopping the turbines at certain times or using sound to deter the bats.

But the habits of Indiana bats largely remain a mystery to scientists. They are so small that only recently has the technology been available to produce devices small enough to track their movements.

Brad Tuckwiller, a county commissioner who manages his family's 1,700-acre cattle farm not far from the ridge, is a supporter of the wind farm. When the project was proposed, he visited one of Invenergy's farms in Tennessee.

"I know some of our citizens are upset, but I don't think it's about the bats. I think it's about the viewshed or fear," Tuckwiller said. "If America is going to have energy independence, we have to look at these alternative sources -- solar, wind, geothermal -- in addition to nuclear and coal."

To Cowan, the risk is too great. The house he and his wife built to be near West Virginia's caves has bat profiles on the windows. The napkin holder on the dining table is decorated with a bat. Their car has a bat bumper sticker.

"I think if the turbines kill one Indiana bat, that ought to end it," he said. "That ought to shut it down."

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