Federal aviation officials have put off responding to questions and document requests from a pair of powerful GOP lawmakers concerned about possible political influence in the agency’s approval of Cape Wind.
“We are currently working on a more detailed response to your request and will provide you with that response and relevant documents as soon as possible,” FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and John Mica, R-Fla.
The FAA approved the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in May 2010. But after the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and the town of Barnstable appealed the decision, the United States Court of Appeals sent the project back to the agency in October 2011 for more review. In its decision, the court found the FAA had overlooked its own rules in making its determination.
The FAA will issue new determinations for Cape Wind based on statutes and regulations and factoring in the appeals court decision, Huerta wrote in his letter to Issa and Mica.
Emails and other documents uncovered in a Freedom of Information Request from the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound referred to the political nature of the project – including one slide in which an official wrote that “it would be very difficult politically to refuse approval of this project.”
However, there is no direct evidence so far that FAA officials were told to give Cape Wind the go ahead.
Issa, who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Mica, chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent a letter to Huerta on July 17, reiterating concerns from opponents about possible political influence in the FAA’s approval.
In their letter the legislators sought a response by Tuesday to a request for more documents and to series of questions about whether politics were a factor in the decision.
“A politically based determination of the Cape Wind project by the FAA is an unacceptable use of federal authority, contravenes FAA’s statutory mandate and raises significant safety concerns for aviation in Nantucket Sound,” they wrote.
In his brief response, Huerta appeared to address the implication that the FAA’s initial decision – the project’s 440-foot-tall turbines would not be a hazard to air travel – was politically driven.
“FAA issued these determinations only after it conducted an in-depth, year-long aeronautical study on the proposed project’s effect on the operation of air navigation facilities and the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace, as required by statute,” he wrote.
The decision by the appeals court marked the first major legal victory for the project’s opponents.
“The first go around was so truncated and so poorly done,” said Charles McLaughlin, an attorney for the town of Barnstable.
“The appeals court picked up on it, and it was the basis for the decision.”
McLaughlin said it is hard to believe political influence was not a factor in the FAA’s decision, which came a month after U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the project.
Cape Wind officials and supporters have previously said the project has been extensively reviewed and approved by the FAA under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.
In a statement emailed to the Times, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac wrote that the agency is currently conducting an aeronautical study on Cape Wind and hopes to make a new determination on the project soon.
“The FAA makes obstruction evaluations based on safety considerations and the available solutions to mitigate potential risks,” she wrote.
Mica’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
“Chairman Issa and the committee expect the FAA will comply as soon as possible,” Issa spokesman Jeffrey Solsby wrote in an email to the Times.
The FAA approval is the final remaining permitting hurdle for Cape Wind.
The company still has yet to announce how the project will be financed.
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