BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A California utility that wants to back out of a northwest Montana wind power project is asking a federal judge to decide if the wind farm's developers did enough to protect a nearby cluster of golden eagles.
San Diego Gas & Electric claims in court documents that a U.S. subsidiary of Spanish wind power company NaturEner misrepresented the risk of the birds being harmed by the Rim Rock wind farm near Cut Bank.
In court documents filed over the last two weeks, the utility has sought to withdraw its pledge to invest $285 million in the $400 million project. It also wants to cancel a 20-year contract under which it was buying renewable energy credits from NaturEner.
But NaturEner says SDG&E is using the eagle issue simply as a pretext for getting out of contract it no longer finds favorable. The company alleges the utility is suffering from "buyer's remorse" as the cost of renewable energy has fallen from when the two struck their deal almost two years ago.
The 126-turbine project is in an area that has seven golden eagle nests and is home to dozens of other raptors, including Montana's densest concentration of ferruginous hawks, according to Montana Audubon.
NaturEner USA spokesman Patrick Ferguson said Thursday that the company has gone to great lengths to protect the eagles, and none has been hurt since the turbines began operating last year. The company uses radar and workers on-site to watch out for eagles and other large birds, and can shut down its turbines if a collision is pending.
NaturEner earlier moved 25 of its towers farther away from nesting areas after complaints from Montana Audubon and others that the project was in the wrong place. Under an agreement signed with the conservation group, the company also said it would continue work to reduce impacts to bird and bat populations.