The battle has moved to the next level. While boating associations continue to lobby the Ohio Power Siting Board to withhold approval of a permit to build wind turbines in Lake Erie, the Ohio-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy have upped the fight by filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for D.C. to halt the proposed project dubbed “Icebreaker.”
Organizations including the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, Lake Erie Foundation, Michigan Boating Industries Association and others have been demanding the OPSB withhold final approval and require a full environmental impact statement, the gold standard for assessing the true effect of such a project. If approved, it would be the first freshwater turbine installation in North America.
Icebreaker is a plan of the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. Six turbines would initially be installed off Cleveland’s lakefront. But LEEDCo’s stated goal is to see as many as 1,400 more turbines in Lake Erie, making the need for a full environmental impact statement even more critical.
Specifically, the lawsuit is filed against the U.S. Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers, accusing them of failing to adhere to requirements of the National Environmental Policy and Clean Water acts by previously singing off on Icebreaker.
"Existing data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shows that this area is important for huge numbers of birds," explains Kimberly Kaufman, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s executive director. "The inadequate science provided by the applicant understates the risk. This highlights the importance of conducting a more comprehensive assessment of environmental impacts."
The project was conceived about 10 years ago. Partially funded through Department of Energy grants, it flew mostly below the public radar until recently, when concerned groups began speaking out against the potential industrialization of Lake Erie. LEEDCo has presented only a lower-grade environmental assessment prepared by a paid consultant, so the true impacts of the turbines on avian, marine life and water quality still need to be fully assessed.
Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, argues the agencies that have so far issued approvals did not engage in the “careful evaluation” required of such a project. “In addition, American tax dollars are paying for more than a third of the project cost,” Parr says, “but a Norwegian corporation is in partnership with LEEDCo. Migratory birds are a common good of the American people. The government has a legal duty to protect them more than international business interests.”
There’s no question Icebreaker would be built in what's been designated a globally significant “Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.” Moreover, there are important observations by experts, including Jeff Gosse, the retired Region 3 energy coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His expertise in avian radar and bat acoustic studies supports the need for a full environmental impact statement. He’s concluded that developers (LEEDCo) haven't presented "scientifically valid data" or identified methodologies sufficient to determine the probable environmental impact on birds and bats, or that the project represents the minimum adverse environmental impact under Ohio law.
Icebreaker is being closely watched in neighboring Great Lakes states, too. A full-scale wind project of 100 to 200 turbines in Lake Michigan was once proposed but ran into heavy local opposition and was dropped. In New York, a state lawmaker introduced a bill to establish a moratorium on wind turbines in any freshwater body within state boundaries. The bill was in response to a proposal to install 50 turbines in Lake Erie off Buffalo.
“Here in Ohio, without the needed [environmental impact statement] and knowing the real intent of Icebreaker, it’s inconceivable the OPSB, in good conscience, could approve LEEDCo’s permit application without demanding an EIS first,” says LEMTA president Michelle Burke. “We stand with both these organizations that have filed suit for taking this needed action.”
It is not known when the OPSB might rule on the LEEDCo permit application.