September 23, 2006
New York

Wind farm reviewers: Comment period over

Despite criticism that its computer system for taking comments about the proposed Long Island wind farm was flawed, the federal agency overseeing the environmental review of the project said yesterday it won’t reopen the public comment period.

Residents, legislators and environmentalists had called on the Minerals Management Service to review the computer system, which agency officials acknowledged had flaws. The federal agency will use comments it receives to formulate guidelines for an environmental impact review of the wind farm.

Opponents say the 40 turbines standing 445 feet tall in the water 3 1/2 miles off Jones Beach will be an eyesore, kill migrating birds, disrupt navigation and harm underwater wildlife.

Supporters discount those arguments, and say the effects of global warming make projects like the wind farm imperative.

In an e-mail yesterday, Nicolette Nye, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the computer system, called OCS Connect, was “operational during the entire comment period.” A total of 207 comments were received online, compared with 1,875 via U.S. mail, she said.

People on both sides of the issue said they were surprised to hear so few e-mail comments had been received, particularly since the minerals service said e-mail was the preferred method for submissions.

“The number does sound a little low,” said Neal Lewis, executive director of the Neighborhood Network, an environmental group that supports the wind farm. He wrote a letter to the minerals service earlier this month asking officials to look into reported problems with the system. Nye earlier this month acknowledged that the system blocked some users when too many tried to submit comments at once. Another official, in an e-mail to a resident, acknowledged the system had “some weaknesses” and that the federal agency suffered from a “manpower shortage.”

Babylon Supervisor Steven Bellone earlier this month asked State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to investigate the process, calling the minerals service’s refusal to reopen the comment period “additional confirmation that this project has been placed on a fast-track for approval without sufficient regard for a rigorous environmental review.” A spokesman for Spitzer didn’t return a phone call. Bellone yesterday said he hasn’t heard back from Spitzer.

In any case, Bellone said, reported problems with the system and more recent revelations from the Interior Department’s inspector general of broader systemic problems at the agency have led the Babylon supervisor to demand that the minerals service be removed from oversight of the wind farm.

“It is now fairly clear that this agency is not prepared or capable of handling this [wind farm] assignment,” Bellone said, particularly in light of recent internal criticism of the department.

Lewis said his group asked those who submitted comments electronically to check the minerals service Web site to confirm their responses were published. “We don’t have any evidence comments were not posted,” he said, though he added, “We do have some concerns the whole process will work smoothly as we go forward.”

Members of the Save Jones Beach group, which opposes the wind project, said it handed out thousands of fliers urging residents to file online comments and were skeptical that the 207 counted by the minerals service represented the total.

Nye said her agency would still review comments received after the Aug. 21 deadline “to see if a new or unique concern is expressed,” though they will not be included in the service’s scoping report due out by October’s end.

Nye noted that “there will be more opportunities for the public to comment during this [environmental impact statement] process, including a 60-day commenting period following the publication of the Draft EIS in spring 2007 and at related public hearings on Long Island.”

By Mark Harrington
Newsday Staff Writer

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