WASHINGTON -- The government for the first time has enforced environmental laws protecting birds against wind energy facilities, winning a $1 million settlement Friday from a power company that pleaded guilty to killing 14 eagles and 149 other birds at two Wyoming sites.
The Obama administration has championed pollution-free wind power and used the same law against oil companies and power companies for drowning and electrocuting birds. The case against Duke Energy Corp. and its renewable energy arm was the first one prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act against a wind energy company.
"In this plea agreement, Duke Energy Renewables acknowledges that it constructed these wind projects in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths," acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement Friday.
An investigation by The Associated Press in May revealed dozens of eagle deaths from wind energy facilities, including at Duke's Top of the World farm outside Casper, Wyo., the deadliest for eagles of 15 such facilities that Duke operates nationwide.
Federal biologists found in a September study that wind turbines had killed at least 67 bald and golden eagles since 2008. Wyoming had the most eagle deaths. That did not include Altamont Pass, a California area where wind farms kill an estimated 60 eagles a year.
Until Friday's announcement, not a single wind energy firm had been prosecuted for a death of an eagle or other protected bird -- even though each death is a violation of federal law, unless a company has a federal permit.
"Wind energy is not green if it is killing hundreds of thousands of birds," said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy, which supports properly sited wind farms. "The unfortunate reality is that the flagrant violations of the law seen in this case are widespread."
In 2009, Exxon Mobil pleaded guilty and paid $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states. The BP oil firm was fined $100 million for killing and harming migratory birds during the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And PacifiCorp, which operates coal plants, paid more than $10.5 million in 2009 for electrocuting 232 eagles along power lines and at its substations.
Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet's wingspan. Though the blades appear to move slowly, they can reach speeds as high as 170 mph at the tips, creating tornadolike vortexes.
Flying eagles behave like drivers texting on their cell phones; they don't look up. As they scan for food, they don't notice the industrial turbine blades until it's too late.