CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CN) - After its wind projects that led to the deaths of 163 protected birds, including 14 golden eagles, Duke Energy Renewables has pleaded guilty to violating federal law.
The Justice Department described the case Friday as "the first ever criminal enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for unpermitted avian takings at wind projects."
Based in Charlotte, N.C., the Duke Energy Corp. subsidiary discovered 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows, at two of its wind projects in Converse County, Wyo., between 2009 and 2013.
The two wind projects, "Campbell Hill" and "Top of the World," consist of 176 large wind turbines sited on private agricultural land.
Prosecutors claimed that Duke Energy Renewables "failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)."
In addition to cooperating with the USFWS investigation, however, the company "and has already implemented measures aimed at minimizing avian deaths at the sites," the Justice Department said.
All told, the plea will cost Duke Energy $1 million in fines, restitution and community service, plus five years of probation during which it must implement an environmental-compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company's four commercial wind projects in Wyoming.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based subsidiary must also apply for an Eagle Take Permit that, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.
Bald and golden eagles are among more than 1,000 species of birds that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects. The treaties involve Great Britain (for Canada), Mexico, Japan and Russia.
Enacted in 1918, the MBTA provides a misdemeanor criminal sanction for the unpermitted taking of a listed species by any means and in any manner, regardless of fault.
Unpermitted corporate taking under the MBTA carries a maximum penalty of $15,000 or twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the offense.
The Justice Department handout describes the four primary ways in which commercial wind power projects cause the deaths of federally protected birds: "collision with wind turbines, collision with associated meteorological towers, collision with, or electrocution by, associated electrical power facilities, and nest abandonment or behavior avoidance from habitat modification."
Of the $1 million sentence against Duke Energy, $400,000 fine will be directed to the federally administered North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. Wyoming will take $100,000 in restitution.
The community service portion of the verdict involves a $160,000 payment by Duke to the congressionally chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, designated for projects aimed at preserving golden eagles and increasing the understanding of ways to minimize and monitor interactions between eagles and commercial wind power facilities, as well as enhance eagle rehabilitation and conservation efforts in Wyoming.
Duke Energy Renewables will contribute the final amount, $340,000, to a conservation fund for the purchase of land, or conservation easements on land, in Wyoming containing high-use golden eagle habitat, which will be preserved and managed for the benefit of that species.
The court also has directed Duke to enact a migratory-bird compliance plan containing specific measures to avoid and minimize golden eagle and other avian wildlife mortalities at company's four commercial wind projects in Wyoming.
Implementation of the compliance plan will cost Duke approximately $600,000 per year, the Justice Department said, citing papers filed with the court.