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Energy company to pay $1 million in wind turbine eagle deaths

In the first case of its kind, a large energy company has pleaded guilty to killing birds at its large wind turbine farms in Wyoming and has agreed to pay $1 million as punishment.

Duke Energy Renewables -- a subsidiary of the Fortune 250 Duke Energy Corp. -- admitted to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in connection with the deaths of more than 160 birds, including 14 golden eagles, according to court documents. 

The deaths took place between 2009 and 2013 at two Duke sites in Wyoming that have 176 wind turbines, according to court documents.

"This case represents the first criminal conviction under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for unlawful avian takings at wind projects," said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, in a statement. He released the statement Friday, the same day Duke admitted to the violations.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted in 1918. It is intended to protect more than 1,000 species of birds and makes the killing of such birds a federal offense. The golden eagle is not endangered, but it has been federally protected since 1962.

Though this is the first enforcement of the law in a case against a wind turbine company, the Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating 18 bird-death cases involving wind power facilities, the Associated Press reported. 

The Justice Department said Duke had failed to make all efforts to build the projects in a way that would reduce the risk of bird deaths, despite a warning from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Duke noted that it built the sites between 2007 and 2009 before the regulations for wind turbines were created.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service did not formalize regulations on turbine construction until 2012, federal officials argued that it didn't matter because the deaths of the birds violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Both sides agreed that Duke had been cooperative and had already begun to make changes to cut down on bird deaths.

"Our goal is to provide the benefits of wind energy in the most environmentally friendly responsible way possible," Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, said in a statement.

The federal government warned in its Friday statement that it was imperative that wind turbine companies research possible effects on bird life before building sites because "at the present time, no post-construction remedies" except shut-down can make wind turbines safe for birds in areas where collision risk is high.

Duke is working to install radar technology, similar to that used by the military to monitor incoming missiles, that will detect eagles near the sites, according to the statement. The company also is  employing field biologists who watch for the birds and temporarily shut down the turbines if necessary.

Compliance plan will cost Duke about $600,000 a year, according to court documents.

"Our voluntary monitoring and curtailment of turbines have been effective. Upon implementing these measures, more than a year passed without any known golden eagle fatalities at these sites," said Tim Hayes, Duke Energy Renewable's environmental development director, in the statement. 

Duke's $1 million in restitution and fines will be split as follows: $400,000 to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, $100,000 to the state of Wyoming, $160,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and $340,000 to a conservation fund for the purchase of land in Wyoming for golden eagle habitat.

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Twitter: @skarlamangla

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

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