Updated July 12 @3 pm
The Edgartown conservation commission, in a 5-1 vote Wednesday, denied a permit for cables that would pass through the Muskeget Channel.
Vineyard Wind proposed to bury two 400-megawatt export cables one mile off Chappaquiddick from its proposed wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard to a site in Barnstable.
The cables had been approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, but at the Edgartown hearings, fishermen pushed back strongly against them, saying that the cables might have detrimental marine effects.
Vineyard Wind and their consultants, Epsilon, appeared stunned after the vote. No one from the contingent would comment on the decision. Later, Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for the project, issued a statement: “Vineyard Wind appreciates the efforts of the Edgartown conservation commission and local stakeholders for its very detailed project review process, which focused on a broad range of issues associated with the work contemplated in the Muskeget Channel …”
In a release sent out a day after the decision, the Edgartown conservation commission summed up how they arrived at their vote.
“After a lengthy hearing and review process, the commission voted to deny the application under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act,” the release states. “The commission found that the applicant, Vineyard Wind, did not submit sufficient information to protect against long-term and short-term adverse effects on the resource area, land under the ocean. This area is critical for the protection of marine fisheries, land containing shellfish, storm damage prevention, flood control, and protection of wildlife habitat. The commission determined that the predictions offered by Vineyard Wind were not sufficient to allow the alteration of the resources of Muskeget Channel at this time.”
In the statement, the commission acknowledged “the extraordinary and diligent efforts undertaken by Vineyard Wind to identify and mitigate the environmental impacts from the cable” over 30 years. “Some of the information the commission was lacking included a decommissioning plan for the cables; plans for further development of additional leases for wind power, and protocol for the post-construction studies to determine if the benthic habitat and other marine resources have adequately recovered,” the release states.
Commissioners will issue a written decision by July 18. “The commissioners acknowledge that it was a very difficult decision,” the release states.
On Friday, Vineyard Wind countered, saying in a press release that they will seek a superseding order by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to overturn the conservation commission decision.
“Vineyard Wind always places a priority on working with local communities, and was fully responsive to all information requests received from the Edgartown conservation commission,” Erich Stephens, chief development officer for Vineyard Wind, said in a prepared statement. “We are disappointed in the commission’s decision, which was flawed, inconsistent with the evidence before it, and in contrast to the conclusions of many other regulatory authorities. Vineyard Wind unfortunately has no choice but to request a superseding order from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.”
On Tuesday, federal officials have also put the project’s approval and overall timeline into jeopardy.
According to a statement posted on Vineyard Wind’s website, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is not yet ready to issue a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project. A decision had been expected Friday to clear the way for construction to begin by the end of 2019 on the 84-turbine wind farm.
“We understand that as the first commercial-scale offshore wind project in the U.S., the Vineyard Wind project will undergo extraordinary review before receiving approvals,” Vineyard Wind posted. “As with any project of this scale and complexity, changes to the schedule are anticipated. Vineyard Wind remains resolutely committed to working with BOEM to deliver the United States’ first utility-scale wind farm and its essential benefits — an abundant supply of cost-effective clean energy combined with enormous economic and job-creation opportunities.”
To this point, Vineyard Wind has cruised along, beating out two other offshore wind projects with leases south of Martha’s Vineyard. But, more recently, the project has received considerably more pushback as the extent of the project became clear to fishermen and others.
Fourth and final hearing in Edgartown
Vineyard Wind came before the conservation commission three times prior to the July 10 hearing. The first two hearings were held on the second floor of Edgartown Town Hall in tight quarters. The second two hearings were held downstairs in the Morgan meeting room where the selectmen meet. During previous hearings, public commentary was allowed, but the final hearing was reserved for direct questions to Vineyard Wind representatives by the commission, and for deliberation among the commissioners only.
The commissioners raised a number of concerns ranging from how frequently the cables would be monitored after installation to whether silt from trenching and dredging would spread farther than Vineyard Wind projected. Several commissioners said past testimony from fishermen had affected their thinking on the project.
“I paid close attention to the fishermen who were here,” commissioner Stuart Lollis said, “both last time and the time before, and what I got from that is this Muskeget Channel is somewhat unique in a couple ways. It’s a very fertile fishing ground. It’s unique in that it has very strong currents and what these currents do is that they move vast amounts of sand in a very short time. The Block Island Times, commenting on the exposed cable over there, said, ‘Shifting sands atop our bedrock are the reason for the cables becoming exposed.’ It sounds to me like we have a similar situation in the Muskeget Channel … So what can you say to allay my concerns?”
Rachel Pachter, vice president of permitting affairs for Vineyard Wind, said there were significant contrasts between the environment in question at Block Island and the Muskeget Channel. She said ”different erosional force[s]” were at work in each location. For Block Island, beach waves were at play, she noted, where off Chappaquiddick, currents are at play. She also said the Block Island project did not execute the kind of high-precision survey of the cable path that Vineyard Wind has in the Muskeget Channel.
She also touted the acumen of the people Vineyard Wind has assembled. “The team that makes up Vineyard Wind includes people that have worked on almost every offshore wind project, including cabling, around the world,” she said. “So there’s a lot of experience with sand waves, with channels, with various conditions that we’re working with. So there’s a lot of lessons learned that we hope to not learn here, plan to not learn here.”
Nathaniel Mayo, Vineyard Wind policy and development manager, returned to the subject of Block Island later in the hearing. “I think the comparison to Block Island is frankly not a valid one,” he said. “It’s similar in respect that there are wind turbines involved and there’s an undersea cable involved.” He pointed out the whole U.S. offshore community has followed the problem there, and he stressed the cable problems there were confined to the beach and near shore areas, and that there are a number of “geographic and bathymetric” difference between the two sites. At Covel’s Beach on the Cape, where Vineyard Wind’s cables will make landfall, he said, they will be burying the cables very deeply to ensure nothing like what happened on Block Island occurs. Mayo also took a moment to praise Vineyard Wind’s environmental consultant, Epsilon Associates, for the expertise they brought to the project. “It might have been better if Epsilon had been part of Block Island’s project,” he said.
As he did at the last hearing, chairman Edward Vincent Jr. pressed Vineyard Wind to elaborate on its decommissioning plan — essentially how the wind energy company will remove the cables, the turbines, and other infrastructure when the project reaches the end of its lifespan.
Pachter said it would be another two years before the decommissioning plan, which is in draft form now, is finalized.
Vincent said that would mean the commission isn’t likely to see it.
Pachter said the financial aspects of decommissioning are “in process” with the federal government.
“We’ve all been through Pilgrim,” commissioner Christina Brown said.
When the vote was finally taken, Brown turned out to be the only commissioner to vote to accept the application from Vineyard Wind.
Next steps after denial
The Edgartown conservation commission has until July 18 to submit its written decision to Vineyard Wind, conservation agent Jane Varkonda told The Times.
DEP spokesman Ed Coletta told The Times the DEP could uphold Edgartown’s denial, it could overturn it, or it could overturn it with conditions attached. If either Vineyard Wind or Edgartown’s conservation commission doesn’t agree with the decision the regional office makes, they can carry the matter to the DEP’s Office of Appeals and Dispute Resolution in Boston.