Fishermen Are At Heart of Delay in Vineyard Wind Project

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Concerns about the effect ocean wind turbines may have on fishing are holding up federal approval of a proposed wind farm south of Martha’s Vineyard, Reuters reported Monday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is refusing to sign off on an environmental impact report originally expected July 7, Reuters said, citing previously unseen federal documents.

Fishing industry representatives want proposed wind turbines farther apart than the currently planned 0.75 nautical mile, want the turbines aligned east-west instead of northwest-southeast, and want compensation for any damage to their livelihoods, according to Reuters.

The Reuters story also gets into the details of why Vineyard Wind officials are so worried about the delay:  The company has to start construction this calendar year to qualify for a federal tax credit the company is depending on for 12 percent of the estimated value of the project.

The fishermen’s breakthrough with the National Marine Fisheries Service mirrors their breakthrough last month with the Edgartown Conservation Commission, which voted 5-1 on June 27 to reject a permit for Vineyard Wind to lay cable on the ocean floor about a mile east of Martha’s Vineyard’s eastern shore.

That meeting was not audiotaped or videotaped, according to a town official, but reports say that fishermen raised concerns that electromagnetic radiation from the cable may disrupt the ability of fish to communicate with each other, and therefore decrease the number of fish. Fishermen were also concerned the laying of the cable could itself damage the fishery.

Supporters of the proposed wind project are putting heat on naysayers to try to flip the results.

Pro-wind Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker travelled to Washington D.C. on Monday morning to meet with the new U.S. Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, about the project, and plans to return to Washington for more meetings about it later this week, according to State House News Service.

Baker refused to talk about the details of the snag.

“What I was really seeking was some clarity so that we can work with Vineyard Wind and with our colleagues in the Congressional delegation and others to cure whatever the concerns are. And I thought the meeting was a good one. … Our goal is going to be to get as much clarity as we can over the next several days and then work with Vineyard Wind to put together a cure plan, because we really want this project to happen,” Baker said, according a video published Monday, July 29 by State House News Service.

At the local level, pro-wind environmentalists are asking the Edgartown Board of Selectmen to put heat on the town’s conservation commission for turning down a permit for the cable. Town selectmen appoint members of the conservation commission, but they don’t have supervisory power over the commission.

Richard Andre, president of Vineyard Power, a cooperative that is a partner of Vineyard Wind, the company seeking to build the wind turbines, noted that town officials in Edgartown have previously identified projected rising seas from global warming as a threat to the town.

“You know, in light of that as a priority for the town and a real threat, for them to vote against the project that’s actually going to be the first project to reverse climate change in the United States – just seems there’s a disconnect between [selectmen’s] appointees to the conservation commission and the conservation commission vote,” Andre told Edgartown selectmen on Monday, July 15, according to a video of the meeting published by Martha’s Vineyard Community Television.

One selectman didn’t take the bait.

“I didn’t participate in any of that, but from what I’m reading it sounded like the fishermen felt pretty strongly in opposition,” Selectman Michael Donaroma said.

Andre said Vineyard Wind plans to put a maintenance facility in Vineyard Haven would create 50 full-time jobs. He noted that the project has gotten approval from every other local and regional regulatory body, including the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Cape Cod Commission, the Nantucket Conservation Commission, and the Barnstable Conservation Commission.

Andre, who told selectmen he attended the June 27 meeting of the Edgartown Conservation Commission and witnessed the commission’s decision, which he called “an unforeseen situation,” said fishermen weren’t mollified by whatever they heard.

“It just seemed like whatever the project company said or whatever we said, wasn’t going to outweigh whatever the prejudices were against it, you know, of a half-dozen to a dozen fishermen that were in the room,” Andre said.

The governor potentially has influence over the outcome of the local conservation permit. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, a state agency in the executive branch of government, can issue what is known as a superseding order of conditions overturning the local conservation commission’s decision.

Federal bureaucrats may be harder to move. While Baker is a Republican and President Donald Trump is a Republican, Baker is one of the least pro-Trump Republican public officials in the nation, at a time when federal regulators are working under Trump’s political appointees.

The Reuters story Monday characterized the delay in federal approval as a squabble among federal regulators, some of whom want to approve the project and some of whom have remaining concerns about it.

The governor on Monday afternoon at one point made a general reference to public comments about Vineyard Wind to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management by skeptics of the project as describing the reasons for the delay in federal approval.

One example is a letter from Mike Pierdenock, a charter fishing boat captain in New Bedford and chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, dated May 23. He said that fishermen seeking big fish like bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, white marlin, and mahi may have trouble navigating their boats and gear around the wind turbines if they are too close together. He also raised concerns about the effects of electromagnetic radiation from underwater cables on the spawning ground of cod and herring.

“The [Recreation Fishing Alliance] is a proponent of green energy but not to the detriment of our resource as well as when it proves to be economically feasible using only private equity, not rate payers or public funding sources,” Pierdenock wrote.

Vineyard Wind is proposing to build 84 wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean about 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard designed to generate electricity.

Supporters say it’s an environmentally friendly way to generate power that will lessen reliance on so-called fossil fuels oil, natural gas, and coal, which release carbon dioxide that environmentalists say appreciably exacerbates climate change.

Opponents note the project is financially unfeasible without hefty government subsidies that they decry as too expensive and not justified. Some opponents also express concerns about what they fear might be harmful effects on fish and whales, which they say are not currently well understood.