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Tiny bat pits green against green
Wind farm could cut carbon, but could it also kill endangered species?

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.

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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