PROVIDENCE – A board of fishermen that advises Rhode Island coastal regulators on offshore wind development has come out in opposition to state certification of the South Fork Wind Farm.
A lawyer for the Fishermen’s Advisory Board said a recommendation by staff at the Coastal Resources Management Council that was agreed to by developers Ørsted and Eversource to reduce the number of turbines in the 132-megawatt project and set up a fishing compensation fund does not meet the concerns of board members.
“It was a backroom deal that happened over the weekend without our participation,” said Marisa Desautel.
She spoke Tuesday morning, hours before the coastal council was set to vote on a mitigation package that includes a reduction in the number of wind turbines from 15 to 12 and the creation of a $12-million fund, to be paid into over 30 years, that would compensate fishermen for lost access to fishing grounds in the project area in Rhode Island Sound.
Council staff recommended that the package be adopted as a condition of certifying that the wind farm complies with Rhode Island coastal policies. Even though the wind farm would be built in federal waters and the lead permitting authority is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the project must get the go-ahead from the Rhode Island coastal council.
The staff recommendation was verbally presented to the fishermen’s board on Friday. That iteration called for a reduction to 11 turbines, aiming to minimize disturbance to the fishing industry and to the marine environment in the project area, which is situated in valuable habitat around Cox Ledge.
The board was also given a choice over the compensation fund: it would either be created with a one-time, upfront payment of $5.2 million or through regular payments over 30 years totaling $12 million, according to Tom Sproul, a University of Rhode Island economist who is working as a private consultant to the fishermen’s board.
The board chose neither and voted in opposition to the mitigation proposal, believing it didn’t go far enough, said Desautel.
“Not even close,” she said.
On Monday, in response to the staff recommendation, Ørsted and Eversource announced that they would be willing to go down to 12 turbines and set up the $12-million fund, describing the agreement as “grounded in world-class fisheries analysis.”
Because the developers would be able to use more powerful turbines, the overall capacity of the wind farm, which would deliver power to Long Island, would remain unchanged.
On Tuesday, the coastal council released an addendum to the original recommendation, saying that after learning that Orsted and Eversource had entered into a contract to use 11-megawatt turbines, staff were willing to support the installation of 12 turbines.
Also that day, the fishermen’s board was sent a written version of the mitigation package with the 12-turbine configuration and the $12-million fund. Desautel said the board remains in opposition and she planned to relay that position to the council at the meeting Tuesday night.
One of the big questions, said Sproul, is which turbine locations would the developers be willing to remove from the project. Some areas are more important to the fishing industry and as ocean habitat than others. If turbine locations were removed along the east side of the lease area, it would do more to mitigate the negative effects of the wind farm, he said.
Still, he added, the noise impacts from piledriving – which can kill eggs, larvae and fish – will be far-reaching even if the wind farm has fewer turbines than originally proposed.
Richard Hittinger, a member of the fishermen’s board, also questioned how reducing the number of turbines would meet the concerns of the fishing industry, especially in a place like Cox Ledge. The area is known as an important nursery for all types of fish species and one of the only places in southern New England where Atlantic cod can still be found.
Council staff acknowledged the fact in its recommendation, saying the area, “known for its biological diversity, is in our view one of the worst possible locations within Rhode Island Sound for this project.”
In an email to council staff, Hittinger pointed to analyses by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who were hired by Ørsted and Eversource, and by Sproul that estimated fishing losses from the project of between $15 million and $40.4 million. Why then, Hittinger asked, is the value of the compensation fund less than even the lowest estimate of losses?
“It appears that the final recommendations were influenced by something other than the facts of the case,” wrote Hittinger, first vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “This may open any decision based on these recommendations to criticism and appeal.”
Desautel’s description of the agreement with Ørsted and Eversource as a backroom deal isn’t the first time the accusation has been made in regard to dealings by the coastal council in recent months.
Opponents to a marina expansion on Block Island complained they were excluded from a settlement proposal that the council made late last year. Attorney General Peter Neronha stepped in and the Supreme Court rejected the settlement.
And last month, Neronha criticized the council for skipping required steps in the approval process for a boatyard expansion in Jamestown.
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