The head of the Ørsted U.S. Offshore wind energy company recently asked Wainscott residents to support his company’s plans to build the South Fork Wind Farm in the ocean off Block Island, even if they vehemently opposed a proposal to bring the power ashore in the tiny hamlet. Many said they planned to do just that.
The debate to be held on Tuesday, June 11, before officials from the New York State Public Service Commission will be heated, no doubt, but still will rage within an arena of inevitability.
At issue will be the landing of the power cable from the wind farm, in either Wainscott or Hither Hills—but based on the presumption that the 15 wind turbines will be constructed and that the cable must land somewhere.
Discussions of the wind farm among its most dead-set opponents, commercial fishermen, has turned decidedly in recent months, from stopping the project entirely to, instead, identifying ways to limit the negative impacts it wind farm could have—and that was even before the official public input phase of the construction and operations plan had begun.
Fishermen from Rhode Island recently inked a compensation agreement with Vineyard Wind, another wind farm development company seeking to build dozens of turbines in the ocean just beyond where the South Fork Wind Farm would rise. Those fishermen lamented that they signed the deal—which makes about $16 million available to them over 30 years, as compensation for losses in income from fishing that they might experience because of the wind farm—only because they felt hogtied, with the wind farm approaching like a couch tumbling downstairs as their negotiating leverage weakened.
The developers of the South Fork Wind Farm have yet to offer any sort of a similar package to fishermen locally, other than pledging to replace any actual fishing gear that is damaged or lost because of some component of the wind farm.
And local fishermen say they are in an even weaker negotiating position than fishermen in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are, because New York State has no official body with regulatory powers representing the interests of the state’s fishermen, as Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council and the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management do.
“The only place that doesn’t have any say in the project is New York,” said Bonnie Brady of the Long Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “You tell me—what’s wrong with this picture?”
But while Ørsted officials have declined to say what form their mitigation agreements with fishermen might take, they said in a recent discussion that their people have been more proactive in working with fishermen and have shown that they are taking fishermen’s concerns even more seriously than other developers do.
They nod to having shifted the placement of the Block Island Wind Farm in response to fishermen’s appeals. They point to a recent six-week halting of their federal application, while they expanded surveys of the area they are considering for the wind farm, so that they could consider spreading the turbines farther apart—a main point of contention for fishermen. And they say that they are doing far more hands-on outreach to local fishermen.
“I think we’ve been very responsive over the course of our entire portfolio, and particularly this project, to the thing the commercial fishing community has asked us for,” said Clint Plummer, a former vice president of Deepwater Wind and now head of new projects for Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind, which purchased Deepwater last year. “We believe our industry can develop alongside the commercial fishing industry in a way that allows us both to be successful.”
Fishermen have been wary of the many unknowns of creating an entirely new and incredibly massive industry smack in the middle of one of the largest migration routes on the planet. They worry that noise from the turbines and electromagnetic fields from the power cables could cause fish to break from eons-old migration patterns, and that the construction of the wind turbines themselves, if placed too close together, could force fishermen to abandon historical fishing grounds.
“If these cables do divert certain species because of the EMFs, you could ruin an industry,” said Robert Valenti, vice chairman of the East Hampton Fisheries Advisory Committee. “It’s not just a handful of fishermen. It’s thousands, and a community that depends on that.”
The fishermen have said that Ørsted has more or less refused to negotiate with them thus far, and is paying little more than lip service to their outreach efforts. The company counters that its people have been talking with fishermen extensively and that the true fruits of those talks are being borne out in the adjustments they’ve made so far, and will continue as the application to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management progresses in the next year.
“We just took a six-week delay in our application because we were taking feedback from the fishing community on the design of our project,” he said. “We’re spending millions on gathering additional data about things they’ve said are important, and we’re considering alternative arrangements to our design that have real economic consequences for us.”
In a recent conversation, however, Mr. Plummer said that putting blanket compensation agreements on projects like wind farms is a difficult approach, because there are many variables that could impact fishing in the area around wind farms on a year-to-year or even decade-to-decade basis—issues that are not related to the wind farms themselves. Warming seas and even pressures of fishing themselves can change apparent fish population distributions that might also be blamed on the construction of wind farms.
The company has hired fishermen to conduct fishing trawls in the areas where the South Fork Wind Farm and other possibly hundreds of other turbines will sprout in the next decade, aiming to get baseline data about how many fish of which species are in the areas, so that changes can be tracked as the turbines go up and begin operating.
Scientific standards, Ørsted’s people say, are the only way to put any sort of a value judgment on what the actual impacts of the turbines will be.
Ms. Brady, always the skeptic about the developers’ claims, says the expansion of the survey area was not a move made out of concern for fishermen but rather was foisted upon Ørsted by Rhode Island regulators who had found the South Fork Wind Farm application to be lacking in required alternatives to the proposed arrangement.
She also has questioned the impartiality of the fishermen who are working for Ørsted to conduct the fishing trawl surveys that are to be the baseline for tracking changes as the wind farm is built and comes online in 2022.
The Fisheries Advisory Committee has repeatedly asked East Hampton Town to give it the funding to hire an economic consultant to do a study of the Montauk fishing industry now, so that there is an economic baseline to match the biological baselines being conducted at sea to compare how things change over the coming years.
“We asked the town to do some pre-construction study of who was fishing, what they’re harvesting, how much they’re landing, so if something happens we can say, this is what it was and this is how much has been lost,” Mr. Valenti said. “But the town has been pushing this project and they haven’t come up with the funds.”
While the dollars-and-cents negotiation can be vague and the plodding progression of the application process can make the developers seem aloof, Mr. Plummer said that Ørsted’s primary concern with the project is to ensure that they do not create a lasting negative effect that will haunt the company for the life of the South Fork Wind Farm and beyond.
He nodded to the complications with the power supply cables associated with the Block Island Wind Farm, which were not buried as deeply as the South Fork cables are proposed to be buried, and have become exposed on a popular beach on Block Island.
The negative feelings toward the project and the company are precisely what they company wants to avoid with the South Fork Wind Farm and its other, much larger, projects.
“Bad outcomes, you live with forever, because it’s virtually impossible to explain them away,” Mr. Plummer said. “If there’s some awful outcome with fishing, we know we’re going to live with that for a long time. So we take the science very seriously.”
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