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Rhode Island regulators give OK to South Fork wind farm

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island regulators on Wednesday night signed off on the South Fork offshore wind farm, over the objections of some local fishermen and environmental advocates.

The Coastal Resources Management Council voted to advance the 12-turbine development, a project by the Danish wind power developer Ørsted and the utility company Eversource.

“We’re pleased that the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council has approved a consistency concurrence for South Fork Wind, advancing this important offshore wind farm, which will coexist with other ocean uses and bring much-needed jobs and clean energy to the region,” a spokeswoman for the project, Meaghan Wims, said in an email.

Like wind turbines themselves, the process to approve them has a lot of moving parts.

The project still needs federal approval and state permitting in New York and Massachusetts, according to the CRMC. But it cleared an important and final hurdle locally with the vote from Rhode Island’s CRMC. The council is made up of gubernatorial appointees. Under the deal hammered out in Rhode Island, the developers have agreed to pay $5.2 million to help Rhode Island fishermen recoup their losses from the project.

Though the project would provide power to Long Island, the turbines themselves would actually sit southeast of Block Island, and under federal law, Rhode Island’s regulators had the ability to weigh in on whether it would be consistent with coastal policies here. Rhode Island’s approval of the project came in the face of opposition from some environmental advocates and figures in the fishing industry.

“We support offshore wind,” said Michael Jarbeau, the Narragansett baykeeper for the environmental group Save The Bay. “We know it’s necessary. But this was the single worst location in Rhode Island Sound where you could put wind turbines.”

The site, Cox Ledge, is an important fishing ground and one of the only places in the area where you can find Atlantic cod in all their life stages, from larvae to adults, Jarbeau said.

Some fishermen, meanwhile, said the deal cleared by the CRMC did not provide enough money.

The Fishermen’s Advisory Board, which represents commercial, recreational and charter fishing interests as well as a seafood processor, wanted the developers to pay $12 million upfront to a fund controlled by the fishing industry to recoup losses over 30 years.

Instead the developers will pay $5.2 million, which supporters said would grow like a savings bond to fully cover the amount of projected losses over 30 years. But in fact, the money would run out in half that time while only paying out $6.4 million, said Thomas Sproul, a consultant for the group and a natural resources economist.

And because the fishing industry itself wouldn’t control the fund, they’re worried fishermen might have a hard time actually getting the money.

“Good luck to fishermen putting in a claim,” said Marisa Desautel, a lawyer for the Fishermen’s Advisory Board.

One way the CRMC tried to accommodate the interests of the fishing industry and allay concerns about marine wildlife was to reduce the number of turbines in the project, from 15 to 12, while allowing for more powerful turbines. The fishermen are skeptical that the reduction would make all that much of a difference.

Shockwaves from driving piles to support the project would kill fish and larvae in the area, and the noise would drive them away, according to the fishermen’s group. The platforms themselves would also make it difficult for fishermen to navigate in the area of Cox Ledge, depriving them of a prime fishing spot.

To the Fisherman’s Advisory Board, one unstated goal of the developers is to weaken the wind power regulatory process in Rhode Island. The South Fork project is big and new by American standards, but smaller and older than the next projects coming down the pike, including nearby Revolution Wind.

“There’s other projects coming,” said Desautel. “And it’s not looking good for the fishermen.”