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Lake Erie wind turbine project subject of upcoming Ohio Supreme Court hearing

Two Bratenahl residents challenge approval of Icebreaker project over threat to birds

CLEVELAND — It’s a project that would harness the power of Lake Erie to power homes.

Dubbed Icebreaker, it would be the first freshwater wind farm in North America, built about eight miles off the Cleveland shoreline.

But the project has been stalled by a legal challenge, which has delayed a key approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board, the authority that signs off on energy projects.

The challenge is fronted by two Bratenahl residents -- Susan Dempsey and Robert Maloney -- who argue the project needs to better study the threat it poses to migrating birds.

Their case comes before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Dempsey has spent a lifetime on Lake Erie and now takes in daily views from her waterfront condo.

“We grew up on a street that had a lake beach, and we had a summer home in Eastlake,” Dempsey said. “So, we spent our summers in the lake. I learned to swim before I could walk.”

Dempsey said she supports wind power and other renewable energy sources but not at the expense of wildlife – or the lake.

“I'm not opposed to looking at alternatives,” she said. “I am opposed to damaging one of the most precious natural resources in the world.”

The project – talked about for more than a decade -- has already passed rigorous scrutiny from state and federal agencies and from several environmental groups.

Backers hope Icebreaker will power 7,000 homes – and provide the blueprint for hundreds of turbines on the lake someday.

“We're very close,” Port CEO Will Friedman told 3News. “We do think it's well worth it for Ohio and for our citizens to find out what the potential will be for us. We have an enormous resource within the boundaries of the state of Ohio.”

All sides agree wind turbines pose a threat to migrating birds -- but they disagree over the extent of the danger.

“The bird issue is really a red herring,” Friedman said, citing years of effort to satisfy the concerns U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others, which required the project to create and implement a responsible wildlife management plan.

Friedman also notes comparisons that show glass buildings, cats and even cell towers currently pose a greater danger to birds that wind turbines.

Dempsey acknowledges the comparison but said the proliferation of wind turbines would change that.

“Are we okay to just add to the birds that are being killed by cats or by glass buildings because the wind turbines are going up all over the place,” Dempsey said. "And so maybe we're the eigth largest killer of birds now with wind turbines. But in a couple of years, will it be the fifth largest or the third where we reduce the habitat for birds by doing this also?"

While Dempsey’s legal fight centers largely on wildlife issues, she also opposes the project because it could open the door to hundreds of turbines on the lake, which she said could threaten recreation on the lake and its ecosystem.

Dempsey’s interests have intersected with the interests of the coal industry, which often opposes renewable energy projects as a threat to coal producers.

Coal producer Murray Energy Corp, which was led by now-deceased Robert Murray, who had a home in Moreland Hills, paid for the consultants and attorneys involved Dempsey and Maloney’s challenge.

Dempsey said that’s no longer the case.

“Individuals have the right to intervene on these projects and to have them discussed,” she said. “Without some kind of financial support, people can't do this on their own. And there were concerns because they said Murray Energy was a coal manufacturer. Coal was supporting us, but [Murray] never directed our participation, and he hasn't covered our fees for a long time. But I feel so passionate about this. I don't want to give it up. I want to see it to the end. So, we're in this and we're going to fight for our lake.”

Friedman stresses that Icebreaker is a demonstration project, meaning any further turbine development will draw additional scrutiny and public input.

“We're simply saying, let's all work together on a very small scale in a very safe manner to see what this foretells for us,” he said. “Then, anything after that, we'll have to go through the same scrutiny that this project went through.”

*Editor's Note: The video in the player above is from a previous report.