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Appeals Court orders environmental review for communications towers

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ordered the Federal Communications Commission to consider environmental impacts, such as the deaths of migrating birds, when licensing new communications towers.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ordered the Federal Communications Commission to consider environmental impacts, such as the deaths of migrating birds, when licensing new communications towers.

The appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the FCC must consider the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act before licenses are issued for television, radio, cell phone and other communications towers.

The decision was based on a Texas case filed by the American Bird Conservancy and the Forest Conservation Council. The court ordered the FCC to include public input before licenses are issued for new towers.

"The court has directed the FCC to look at past, present and cumulative impacts of its tower approval process,'' Kathleen Sutcliffe of Earthjustice, the group that handled the legal case for environmental groups, told the News Tribune.

Sutcliffe said that, though the case began on issues regarding towers in Texas placed near Gulf Coast bird migration areas, the order will have national implications for all tower sites.

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The court also said the FCC failed to involve the public in its tower approval process. There are about 77,000 such towers in the nation, and the FCC gets applications for about 20 more each month.

"The Catch-22 ... is that the Commission provides public notice of individual tower applications only after approving them," the judges wrote in their decision.

It's not clear what effects the court ruling will have on a pending, internal FCC decision about ordering new lighting for communications towers. The FCC last year accepted public input on the issue of tower lighting after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an estimate that between 5 million and 50 million birds are killed each year in the U.S. by colliding with towers and their support wires.

Experts say the birds might be attracted to the towers by slow-flashing red lights. The FCC has taken no action on the issue.

But other issues also affect how towers affect birds, such as their height and whether they are located near traditional migration routes.

It's not clear how the ruling might affect existing towers such as those at Duluth's hilltop antenna farm.

"American Bird Conservancy hopes this decision in favor of conserving migratory birds along the Gulf Coast will spur the FCC to issue a final decision on the lighting [issue] and to develop national standards to ensure migratory birds everywhere, not just those on the Gulf Coast,'' Steve Holmer, spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy, told the News Tribune.

FCC officials did not immediately return a reporter's telephone call.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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