NEW BEDFORD – The New Bedford-dominated northeastern scallop industry, aided by fishing interests in four states, is suing the federal government to try to block a 127 square-mile wind turbine development in what they say are crucial fishing grounds south of Long Island.
The complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks an injunction to stop a Dec. 15 auction in which the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is selling a lease on the location. The scallop industry group Fisheries Survival Fund is leading a dozen plaintiffs, including the City of New Bedford, the Town of Narragansett, R.I., the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, and other entities in Rhode Island and New Jersey.
“The people that make their living on the water were the last ones considered, not the first,” said David Frulla, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Important for scalloping, the area is also one of five main locations to fish for squid in the northeast, he said.
The plaintiffs allege that the bureau has not done enough to seek alternate locations to the one sought by an unsolicited proposal from three New York energy companies: New York Power Authority, Long Island Power Authority, and Consolidated Edison. The companies want to put 194 turbines on about 81,000 acres, according to the complaint.
The complaint says that rather than seek alternatives now, the bureau has deferred analyzing the appropriateness of the site until years from now, after the developers have already invested a substantial amount money.
“In effect, (the bureau) has permitted private companies to lay claim to valuable ocean areas without an adequate public process,” the complaint says.
Bureau spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty said when the agency received the proposal, it embarked on a competitive lease process that included public comment, and it deleted 1,780 acres known as Cholera Bank after the National Marine Fisheries Service identified it as a sensitive area.
“We seriously did consider the fishing community’s input prior to making any decisions,” she said.
The lease will not give any developer the right to construct turbines, she said. Rather, it will allow the winning bidder to engage in planning-related work, such as surveying and installing a buoy to gather data. The lessee has 12 months to issue a site assessment plan, and once the bureau approves that plan, the lessee has four-and-a-half years to submit a construction and operation plan, she said.
Yet according to Robert Vanasse, a spokesman for Fisheries Survival Fund, once the federal government issues the lease, it can’t change the location.
“That’s why it’s so important to do this right the first time,” he said. “That’s really what this suit is about.”
In New Bedford, former scallop boat captain Jim Kendall said the proposal comes at a time when other prime fishing areas have been closed or restricted, making the site, about 11 miles off Long Beach, New York, all the more valuable.
“That is a very productive area for scallop fishing currently,” he said. For fishermen struggling to find a place to fish, he said, “It’s getting crazier by the moment.”
Kendall works as a fishing industry representative for Vineyard Wind, a company looking to develop offshore wind off Martha’s Vineyard, but he said because wind power is not transported over long distances, the projects are not in competition.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell submitted a written declaration as part of the court filing. In it, he said the fishing industry’s concerns are legitimate and that the bureau has not considered them properly.
The city has sought to position itself as a preeminent port for wind power staging, but like Kendall, Mitchell said in an interview that the city’s interests are not in competition with the New York project.
Fourteen would-be bidders were deemed qualified to participate in the online auction, which has a minimum bid of $158,700, or $2 per acre, Moriarty said. Bidders then had to submit deposits to continue in the process, but the bureau does not reveal how many bidders do so until after the auction, she said.
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