PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island coastal regulators will wait another week before making a decision on a key approval for a large offshore wind farm proposed in ocean waters southeast of Block Island.
The state Coastal Resources Management Council was set to decide Tuesday whether to certify that the South Fork Wind Farm complies with Rhode Island’s coastal policies, but after five hours of testimony from developers Orsted and Eversource in favor of the 132-megawatt project and from fishermen concerned about its impacts, the meeting was continued to June 2. At that time, the council will hear public comment and vote.
At issue is a package recommended by council staff to minimize potential negative impacts from the wind farm on the state’s fishing industry and marine habitat in the project area located in Rhode Island Sound. The proposed package includes a reduction in the number of turbines, from 15 to 12, and the creation of a $12-million fund, that would be paid into over 30 years, to compensate fishermen for any financial losses.
Although council staff recommended a conditional certification of the project if the developers agreed to the package – which they did – a board of fishermen that advises the council on offshore wind development came out against the mitigation proposal. A lawyer for the Fishermen’s Advisory Board described the final staff recommendation, which was updated after input from the developers, as a “backroom deal” that excluded the involvement of the board.
Jeffrey Willis, executive director of the CRMC, disputed that characterization. He said a change made over the weekend to the proposed package – allowing 12 turbines, instead of the 11 initially requested by council staff and verbally presented to the board – only came about after Orsted and Eversource informed staff that they had already signed a contract to use 11-megawatt turbines.
With turbines of that size, the developers would need to install a total of 12 in order to meet the intended 132-megawatt capacity of the wind farm that would send power to Long Island.
“There were absolutely zero backroom dealings here,” Willis said.
CRMC deputy director James Boyd outlined steps taken by Orsted and Eversource to address the impact of the wind farm, including a previous agreement to space turbines one nautical mile apart in a grid pattern to make it easier for fishing boats to travel within the project. But despite those efforts, the wind farm would still have adverse impacts on the environment and the fishing industry, he said, necessitating the mitigation package.
He acknowledged the opposition from fishermen to the agreement.
“I’m very sorry that we were not able to reach an agreeable solution here as we did for the Vineyard Wind case,” Boyd said, referring to the first major offshore wind farm to receive certification from the coastal council, in 2019.
Members of the fishermen’s board and their representatives criticized the mitigation package as incomplete, saying it failed to cover all of the potential losses that could range from damage to fish populations from piledriving to increased insurance costs because of navigation difficulties.
“Let me make it clear, we are not whole,” said board member Chris Brown, president of the Seafood Harvesters of America, an industry group.
The board is willing to accept the agreement if the $12-million fund is set up through an upfront payment, rather than being paid into over time. But representatives of the developers did not say where they stand on that possibility.
In their presentation, they said the wind farm would avoid the most critical habitat in the project site around an area called Cox Ledge that is known to attract many species of fish, including cod. They also said the wind farm would occupy less than one percent of the total 13,700-acre area that the developers are leasing from the federal government for South Fork.
And scientists hired by the developers estimate fishing losses caused by the wind farm to be minimal, at a little more than $1 million over the life of the project.
“We have stepped up to the plate and have designed a project that will coexist with other uses of the marine environment, including fisheries,” said Melanie Gearon, permitting manager for the wind farm.
Still, it wasn’t only fishermen who expressed reservations about the proceedings. In a letter to the council submitted before the meeting, state Sen. Dawn Euer said it would be a disservice to move forward with certification for the wind farm without completing a collection and review of baseline fisheries data and a full evaluation of the impacts from the project. She referenced an ongoing three-year study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of fisheries in offshore wind areas.
“Without understanding the full scale of the impacts of large-scale wind farms being placed within sensitive habitats, we risk the potential collapse of food chains and entire ecosystems,” wrote Euer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture. “I fear that we are currently residing in a shoot-first aim-later scenario.”
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