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Ocean bill to surface for action

A landmark bill designed to better manage everything from wind farms to whale watching in the coastal waters off Massachusetts is making its way through the Statehouse and could emerge from a key legislative committee as soon as this week.

Environmental activists are calling the legislation, separate versions of which have already been approved by the House and Senate, a first-in-the-nation attempt by a state to create a comprehensive management plan for its ocean waters.

A single, compromise version of the bill is expected to be released this week.

The goal of the bill is make sure all decisions and permits about development in state-controlled waters up to three miles from the coast conform to a single ocean management plan, instead of being considered on a case by case basis.

The plan would cover everything from cruise ships and whale watching tours to commercial activities like wind farms, liquefied natural gas terminals, and the sand and gravel industry.

The bill is also designed to help guard the fragile underwater ocean habitat including protecting fishing stocks and other marine life.

“We’ve had this ad hoc process about approving what kinds of activities are going to go on in our oceans,” said Tom McCann of the Ocean Conservancy. “What this does is make sure this is going about in a thoughtful manner.”

A special commission including heads of state agencies, lawmakers, city and town leaders, environmentalists and representatives of the fishing and marine industry would help draft the plan.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate also created a nine-member ocean science advisory council to help guide those drafting the management plan. The bill would place oversight and planning authority in the hands of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth said the bill is needed as the ocean waters are increasingly coming under pressure.

“Our ocean is the last great stretch that has not yet been developed,” Murray said when the Senate approved their version of the bill. “We have well-established laws for planning how we use our land, but nothing for our ocean.”

The compromise version of the bill surfaces as the state is facing a series of coastal decisions.

Earlier this year, the federal Minerals Management Service held a series of public hearings on a contentious plan by Cape Wind Associates to build 130 windmills across 25 miles of federal waters in Nantucket Sound.

The proposal has been working its way through the state and federal regulatory process for seven years and has split the state’s top political leaders.

There’s also a second proposal to build an offshore wind farm in Buzzards Bay.

And a company hoping to build a liquefied natural gas terminal near Fall River is floating the idea of building an offshore berth that would allow tankers to unload the liquefied natural gas into a four-mile pipeline.

The state has also taken steps to help protect coastal waters from pollution. Last month the Patrick administration asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban boats from discharging sewage – including treated waste – in Salem Sound.

If approved, Salem Sound would become the 10th coastal area in Massachusetts to receive the designation, a move intended to help protect beaches and shellfish and eelgrass beds.

McCann said the oceans protection bill, if given final approval by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Deval L. Patrick, would put Massachusetts far ahead of other states. He said the bill is more comprehensive than California’s Marine Life Protection Act, designed to create marine protected areas off the California coast.

“We really think Massachusetts is in a leadership position here,” he said.

By Steve LeBlanc

The Associated Press


12 May 2008