State officials from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs held a wind farm double-header last week. In back-to-back public information sessions, the officials discussed the process for opening up federal waters off the Massachusetts coast to wind energy development.
The first session, attended by a large number of Island fishermen and members of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, was by far the more emotional of the two. In a standing-room-only meeting at the Oak Bluffs Library, Vineyard fishermen expressed their frustration and fear regarding the growing number of large-scale wind farms proposed for Island waters.
“We’re the little man in the big picture, and it’s a multi-million dollar picture; we’re going to get hurt no matter how you look at it,” said Oak Bluffs fisherman Bill Alwardt. “It seems every time you turn around there’s another wind farm, another project, another lease . . . all I see is our fisherman losing on this Island.”
The hearing was scheduled to discuss a joint venture between the federal government and Commonwealth to lease space in a 2,224-nautical-square-mile area 12 miles south of the Vineyard to private developers interested in building offshore wind farms.
The project is proposed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in cooperation with the state.
But the discussion during the hearing often veered to other large-scale wind projects planned for waters near the Island, including Cape Wind and another proposal to develop offshore wind energy projects in a 400-square mile area between the Vineyard and Block Island.
That project is a joint venture between Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Federal authorities have already received two bids to build offshore wind farms in this area, known as an area of mutual interest (AMI).
“Nobody seems to care”
Many fishermen complained the wind farms would disrupt the fishing grounds around the Island and threaten their livelihood.
“You are putting us out of business,” Mr. Alwardt said, “and nobody seems to care. Deval Patrick, our governor, does not care, he is ramming this thing down our throats and nobody is listening. You will put us out of business.”
The meeting got off to a sour note when Coast Guard representative Ed LeBlanc tried to answer a list of questions about the potential effects of the wind farms on fishermen. The first questioner asked if there would be exclusion zones around any of the turbine projects.
Mr. LeBlanc said it was difficult to answer the question, because there are no specific plans in front of the Coast Guard so far. “We are only talking in generalities here.”
But Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and chairman of the Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, strongly disagreed. “We know there is a very specific proposal called Cape Wind, and we know two proposals have been made in the Rhode Island area,” Mr. Doty said.
“This is the first question,” he added. “Can we please get an answer to our first question?”
Mr. LeBlanc said there are no plans to place exclusion zones on any wind farm projects that will be built off Vineyard waters. “That would be our last resort, we aren’t looking to put any exclusion zone around the turbines. When they are being built, maybe,” he said.
Mr. LeBlanc said they would consider a number of mitigation methods, including burying the cables and installing shielding, and assured fishermen that there would be no restrictions on dragging or dredging on the ocean bottom around the turbines.
But some fishermen were skeptical, noting that many underwater cables, like those connected to the Woods Hold Oceanographic observational platforms south of the Vineyard, have a buffer zone that prevents fisherman from dragging within a certain distance.
Jonathan Mayhew, Chilmark selectman and a fisherman, said there was a buffer zone on many underwater cables leading to the Vineyard. “We have been told for 30 years the Coast Guard restricts those areas . . . and we can’t fish there,” he said.
But Mr. LeBlanc said he not aware of such restrictions and suggested they were only warnings printed on navigational charts and were not enforced by the Coast Guard.
Mitigation for fishermen
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel asked if there was any federal or state funding available to subsidize Vineyard fisherman who might be hurt financially by the crop of wind turbines planned around the Vineyard.
He cited a recent case in Gloucester where two natural gas companies donated $6 million to a fishermen’s preservation fund, and he asked if a similar fund could be set aside for Vineyard fishermen.
“We have companies looking to develop in the AMI, and I assume these are half-billion dollar projects. Why can’t we ask them as part of their approval that they set aside a certain amount of money for fishermen . . . there will certainly be an impact,” Mr. Israel said.
Maureen A. Bornholdt, program manager for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the situation in Gloucester was different because it involved natural gas. She said the federal government, in this case, did not have the authority to insist that mandate funds be set aside.
“That is not something we could do by law,” she said.
But EOEEA representative John Weber said that the state is now negotiating with Cape Wind to establish a mitigation fund, something which was news to many in attendance. He said the state might be able to compel future developers to do the same for the Vineyard.
The funds, however, would likely go to help restore habitats and fish species and not to Island fishermen, Mr. Weber said.
“Everyone cares about the habitat, but nobody cares about the fisherman,” responded Mr. Doty sarcastically.
Charter boat captain Buddy Vanderhoop said he worried that the turbines and underwater cables would produce electromagnetic waves that could have a profound impact on the local fisheries even beyond the Vineyard.
“That’s one of the major fish ways, where the fish come through George’s Bank to the estuaries to spawn, both around the Cape and Islands but up to Newport as well,” he said. “I just wonder what these electromagnetic waves will do to these spawning fish.”
Ms. Bornholdt said there are two studies currently underway examining the issue.
“This system seems a little bass-ackwards,” Mr. Mayhew later responded. “It seems like you’re doing this after the fact.”
Mr. Doty concluded the session.
“It’s a clear indication of how important this issue is, to have all these working people show up at 3:30 pm in the afternoon on a beautiful day when all of you could be out in the open water trying to make an extra buck,” he said.
A big bulls-eye
By comparison, the second session, focusing on the proposal to lease federal waters south of the Vineyard to developers, was a more sedate affair during which state and federal officials explained the application process in great detail.
Bill White, assistant secretary for federal affairs for the EOEEA, said the plan to lease the federal land was part of a larger state initiative by Gov. Deval Patrick to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent and generate 15 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2020.
Mr. White said Massachusetts is considered the leader in developing offshore wind farms.
“Every single governor is competing for second place. All these states are hustling and they want to be first movers. They want to attract the manufacturers, they want to create the jobs, and they want the clean energy,” he said.
“Why are we talking about offshore wind? Well somebody once said ‘why do I rob banks?’ And the answer was: ‘that’s where the money is.’ And that’s what we have here; this is where the wind is. Especially south of Massachusetts,” he added.
Ms. Bornholdt said none of the wind farms planned for the AMI and the federal waters south of the Vineyard has been approved. There would be ample time for the public to review the proposals, ask questions, and offer comment, she said.
“It’s not just we have this area, let’s go. It’s more like: let’s refine this, process the data, analyze specific consequences,” she said. “This is not a fait accompli.”
But there was again criticism during the public comment period.
“I feel like the Vineyard has been targeted with a big bulls-eye, these projects will be to the north, to the east and to the south,” Oak Bluffs resident Beverly Burke said. “I feel like we are going to be in the middle of an industrial plant.”