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Wind Energy Challenged on Harm to Bat Population

GREENBELT, Md. (CN) - In what is thought to be the first suit challenging a green energy project on environmental grounds, a West Virginia wind turbine project is being challenged in Federal Court because it is likely to devastate the area's bat population. "It's a tricky one," the plaintiff's environmental lawyer acknowledged.

The wind power project in Greenbrier County in West Virginian could kill more than 130,000 Indiana bats over the coure of 20 years, say the Animal Welfare Institute and Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy.

The Beech Ridge Energy and Invenergy Wind's plans to erect 124 400-foot-tall wind turbines on 23 miles of forested Appalachian mountain ridgelines.

The plaintiffs' attorney, William Eubanks, said his clients understand that renewable energy is an effective way to mitigate climate change. "But it has started to come to light in the past few years that, especially from the scientists out there, that there are renewable energy projects that are being placed in what they call the wrong locations.

"When you have a project that is in an unsustainable location, then it is time for the scientists and environmental groups to speak out against that."

It is believed to be the first federal lawsuit to challenge a wind energy project on environmental grounds.

"It's a bit of a tricky one," Eubanks said, "because obviously we are very green and pro renewable energy, but this is a project that will have very detrimental impacts on wildlife in the area."

Many bats will die from colliding with the turbines; others will succumb to barotrauma, a condition caused by low-pressure zones near wind turbines that can make bats' lungs hemorrhage, killing them almost instantly, Eubanks.

Other wind energy facilities in the eastern United States have killed and maimed scores of bats. Without reforms, bat experts say, hundreds of thousands more will be killed in coming years. Bats also are being devastated by a mysterious and spreading disease called white nose syndrome, that kills them by the thousands in their caves.

Bats control insect populations and also serve roles as pollinators.

The plaintiffs say Beech Ridge and Invenergy must apply with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an incidental take permit. A "take" refers to anytime a bat is killed or harmed. By applying for the permit, the defendants would comply with the Endangered Species Act and allow people and organizations to suggest how the facility could be built in a way that is less harmful to the local environment.

"The company would have to apply with the Fish and Wildlife Service," said Eubanks. "And the Fish and Wildlife Service would review the application and determine what level of impact would occur to the endangered species in the area, which includes the Indiana bat. And the Fish and Wildlife service would work with the company to help them come up with a plan that would minimize the impact on the species as much as possible."

To make the facility safer for the bats, the defendants might place the turbines in designated areas, or run the turbines only at certain times of the day, Eubanks said.

He said some people in the community look favorably on the project. The construction phase would bring jobs to the area. But he is adamant that the project must be as safe and sustainable as possible.

"The people who (support the project) are looking at the short-term implications - bringing jobs for the construction portion of it, which will definitely stimulate the economy. But it will be very short-term. You will get a great upfront benefit for the first six months to a year, while construction happens, but after that, you're left with this project for the next twenty or thirty years which will just devastate the environment."

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