Commission tries to navigate difficult bird issues

For more than eight years, the FCC has been trying to deal with a contentious issue between tower owners and environmental groups. It seems broadcast TV and radio towers can kill migratory birds.

Now, the commission has drafted rules that would consider the environmental effects of towers before they are built or substantially changed by construction. Environmental effects include protection of endangered birds. The commission has been accepting comments about the proposed rules.

The rules development on the bird issue has come a long way. Environmentalists opposed the FCC’s tower approval process three years ago. A federal appeals court ordered the FCC to offer the public “a meaningful opportunity” to ask for an environmental assessment study for proposed towers.

The parties came together and negotiated. The new draft rules reflect a 2010 agreement between the NAB, the Wireless Association, tower construction companies and environmental groups. Under the draft, the public will be able to comment on environmental effects of a proposed tower, and the FCC will consider those comments and determine whether an environmental assessment is required or not.

The commission initially would require an environmental assessment for requests to register towers of more than 450ft. Today such assessments are filed with the tower registration. Under the new rules, the assessment would come first.

Towers between 351ft and 450ft will be reviewed for environmental impact on a case-by-case basis. These requirements will apply not only to new towers but also to construction that makes a “substantial increase in size” of a structure — whether it is height or width. Also, substantial changes in tower lighting also would trigger these requirements.

In addressing the issue, the American Bird Conservancy, the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society noted that millions of migratory and other bird species are killed at communications towers and related structures every year.

“Studies corroborate that there are population level impacts on many bird species and harm to endangered species caused by communications towers and related structures such as television and radio stations,” the groups said. “Tower height, tower lighting, tower support structures (i.e. guy wires), location and lighting of related structures are all key factors in these bird kills. Each of these variables must be evaluated in terms of direct, indirect and cumulative impacts.”