The Alameda County Board of Supervisors handed wind energy companies a partial victory July 7 by rejecting environmentalists' demands. Environmentalists said they'd pursue the matter in court. At a contentious public hearing, the board gave preliminary approval to a compromise proposal adding nine conditions to new 13-year use permits for about 3,000 Altamont wind turbines. The board will give final consideration of the wind turbine permits at its September 22 meeting. The motion by Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose district includes the nation?s oldest and largest wind farm in the Altamont Pass Wind Resources Area, passed on a 4-1 vote including one abstention. The conditions include completing an environmental impact report for Altamont Pass within three years, and a timeline for repowering or replacing existing turbines at Altamont with large, less lethal, turbines. County planners estimated that it would cost $500 million to repower the entire Altamont wind area. "We believe that this is a proposal that we can move forward with," said Nicki Carlsen, an attorney representing the ten Altamont wind companies. Stricter permit conditions advocated by environmental groups, California Energy Commission biologists, and Attorney General Bill Lockyer would have placed too great of a financial burden on wind companies and effectively shut down wind energy production at Altamont, she contended. However, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) said the group would move forward with a lawsuit in state court against the ten Altamont wind companies. The lawsuit charges the wind companies with criminal violations of state and federal wildlife protection laws and unfair business practices under California's Unfair Competition Law. CBD is seeking an injunction against the wind companies and compensation for the deaths of up to 26,000 hawks, eagles, and owls, and falcons in the past 20 years by more than 5,000 Altamont wind turbines. CBD may file a second lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act, said Richard Weibe, the group's attorney. He cited letters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service written in 1988 and 1990 stating that the high number of protected raptors killed at Altamont was unacceptable and in violation of federal law. Last fall, the supervisors established a working group of stakeholders which made considerable progress on reaching a settlement agreement on the wind turbine permit conditions. However, the talks broke down in late June over shut downs of wind turbines to reduce avian mortality and monetary payments by wind producers for conservation easements intended to mitigate bird kills at Altamont. The compromise proposal adopted by the supervisors included most of the recommendations of the wind power working group but yielded to the wind industry on the environmentalists' demands. The permit conditions include:<ul><li>County formation of an independent scientific review committee to be funded by Altamont wind producers.<\/li> <li>An intensive monitoring program also funded by wind producers to immediately compile data for the environmental impact report process.<\/li> <li>A requirement that wind producers repower or remove 10 percent of their wind turbines within the next four years and 100 percent within 13 years.<\/li> <li>Preparation of an EIR by county planners for the entire Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area. The EIR will include studies and data on repowering, new wind technology, offsite mitigation and other ways to reduce avian mortality.<\/li> <li>Immediate shut down of the most dangerous 2 percent of wind turbines and of all turbines for two months in the winter months when they pose the greatest danger to raptors and songbirds. By the end of the fifth year all wind turbines must be shut down for 3.5 months in the winter.<\/li> <li>Wind developers may not opt out of permit conditions due to financial hardship.<\/li> <li>Immediate implementation by wind producers of other measures identified by the energy commission to reduce avian mortality, including retrofitting all electrical lines, removing derelict turbines, and relocating rock piles away from turbines that have become havens for rodents?i.e. raptor all-you-can-eat buffets. <\/li><\/ul>Environmentalists argued for adoption of stricter measures that Energy Commission biologists recommended to immediately reduce raptor deaths at Altamont by 50 percent and by 85 percent in six years. These included permanently shutting down the 350 highest risk turbines totaling 37 MW out of Altamont's total capacity of 582 MW. "Thirteen years is a long time to keep killing even half of the birds," said Jeff Miller, CBD's Bay Area wildlands director. The Energy Commission estimated that up to nearly 5,000 raptors and songbirds are killed by Altamont wind turbines each year. Lockyer weighed in to support the environmental group, contending that it was economically feasible for the Altamont wind producers to implement the energy commission's recommendations to reduce avian mortality at Altamont. In a strongly worded letter to the Alameda Supervisors Lockyer echoed CBD's concerns and questioned why the county intended to prepare an EIR after issuing the wind turbine permits instead of before. Lockyer was invited by Alameda Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw to intervene in CBD's lawsuit against the Altamont wind producers. The attorney general has not yet decided whether to do so. The energy commission forecast that shutting down all Altamont wind turbines in the winter months would reduce wind power output by 17.5 percent at a time when demand is weakest and energy prices are lowest. However, wind companies argued that it would be too costly to do so. Moreover, because their entire output is sold under contract to Pacific Gas & Electric, their rates are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission and not by the market. "If your goal is to shut down the Altamont then implement the Attorney General's proposal because that?s what it will do," Carlsen charged. Environmental groups criticized the wind companies for claiming financial hardship while withholding their financial records from the supervisors and public. They argued it was only fair that the wind companies pay $6.5 million in restitution to purchase suitable raptor habitat in Altamont away from the wind turbines because the companies earned a $53 million windfall profit during California's energy crisis. According to the groups, in 2004 alone the Altamont wind producers earned $7.5 million more revenue than in 2003. The 18-month permitting delay enabled them to avoid paying $7 million in compliance costs to reduce avian mortality. "They're not a struggling industry. They're a highly profitable industry poised to double the amount of wind power they produce in California," said Julia Levin of the National Audubon Society. Under the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act the wind companies could be fined $500,000 for every eagle killed at Altamont at a potential cost of $50 million a year, she said. The supervisors shared the environmental groups concern over both the bird kills at Altamont and the wind companies' refusal to disclose their financial information to the board. However, the economic realities of continued county revenues and jobs provided by the wind industry prevailed. Union workers clad in day-glow Kelly green shirts packed the chambers to support the wind companies, several of whom have signed union contracts. Terry Duggan, a large Altamont landowner who leases land to wind companies, warned the supervisors that they faced the prospect of loss of open space and rampant development akin to north Sacramento County if the Altamont wind turbines shut down. However, the wind companies didn't get everything they wanted. The supervisors rejected their requested "opt out" permit condition. In the failed negotiations, the companies wanted any settlement agreement on a guarantee from environmental groups that they would dismiss all existing legal challenges and agree not to file any permit appeals or lawsuits over Altamont in the future.