The Edgartown conservation commission voted 5-1 Wednesday night to deny the construction of two undersea cables that would connect the nation’s first industrial-scale, 84-turbine wind farm to mainland Massachusetts.
The surprising vote puts the giant renewable energy development on hold and marks the first denial of a project that has already received approval from a half-dozen regulatory agencies throughout the Cape and Islands, including the Cape Cod Commission, the Nantucket conservation commission, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
But after hearing hours of testimony from about a dozen fishermen at a hearing two weeks ago, the Edgartown conservation commission arrived at a different conclusion Wednesday.
Commissioners decided that their concerns with the project’s unknowns outweighed the potential benefits represented by the wind farm’s substantial investment in renewable energy.
“This is new stuff,” said commissioner Jeff Carlson. “I think it needs more work, and we’re right in the crosshairs of it.”
Under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, the portion of the undersea cables that would run approximately one mile off the eastern shore of Chappaquiddick fall under the jurisdiction of the conservation commission.
Two weeks ago the commission listened to nearly five hours of back-and-forth testimony that pitted commercial fishermen who depend on the Muskeget Channel’s rife waters for their livelihood against climate activists who felt their own livelihoods were threatened by the existential threat of climate change. More than 20 members of the public spoke, driving a wedge between the two groups, fishermen and climate activists, both focused on different aspects of environmental advocacy. The controversial and often passionate hearing prompted the commission to close discussion and wait two weeks to vote.
Last night Mr. Carlson spoke at length, outlining his concerns about the project, most of them rooted in testimony from commercial fishermen during the public hearing.
“I listen to the people who are out there all the time,” he said. “These are guys out there in a boat trying to make a living out there. They know how the current works. They know the sand works, and when I listen to them, and I hear this . . . I just feel unintended consequences are all over this.”
He expressed doubts about Vineyard Wind’s proposed construction timeline and said there were unknowns about the effects of silt displacement on benthic habitats. He also raised further concerns about the cables emerging from the sea floor, citing an incident with a wind farm cable near Block Island.
Representatives from Vineyard Wind countered those claims, saying that the project’s draft environmental impact statement predicted minor environmental disturbance from the cable installation and that the current project bore little resemblance to the one near Block Island. Vineyard Wind plans to bury the cables five to eight feet beneath the seafloor using hydro-plow technology. Rachel Pachter, a Vineyard Wind employee in charge of the project’s extensive permitting process, said the company was also working on proposed mitigation measures for fishermen, if unintended consequences result from the project.
But in the end commissioners were not convinced, siding with fishermen who couldn’t accept the project’s unknowns.
“I rely heavily on testimony from fishermen who are out there every day,” said commissioner Geoffrey Kontje.
Mr. Carlson went further.
“I think everybody is really anxious about global warming, and they are looking past what the unintended consequences of this are to the fisheries of this area,” Mr. Carlson said. “What you don’t know, you don’t know.”
Commissioners then voted to deny the project, with Christina Brown casting the lone dissenting vote. Ms. Brown is a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which voted unanimously to approve the project earlier this year.
A spokesman for Vineyard Wind, Scott Farmelant, could not immediately say whether the company would appeal the decision. But he confirmed that this was the project’s first denial during the extensive permitting process.
An appeal would go first to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
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