BOSTON – A group of Nantucket residents opposed to an offshore wind farm planned for waters south of the island filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to stop its construction, arguing that several federal agencies violated laws intended to protect endangered species.
The lawsuit alleges the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to comply with a federal law when assessing, disclosing and mitigating the environmental effects of approving the Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind project.
The development is on track to become the largest offshore wind project in the nation after the federal government gave its final approval in May. Federal and state officials have hailed the 800-megawatt project as a way to produce clean energy, curb carbon dioxide emissions, reduce costs for ratepayers and create thousands of new jobs.
But the group, Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries failed to ensure that Vineyard Wind would not jeopardize the survival of federally listed critically endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale. The suit also names Interior Secretary Debra Haaland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
“The North Atlantic right whale is on the verge of extinction. However, one of its longtime safe havens – where there is ample food and protective areas for birthing and rearing young – is the area immediately south-southwest of Nantucket Island,” the lawsuit reads. “Unfortunately, this is the exact place that (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) has selected for purposes of constructing the largest offshore wind array ever assembled.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the bureau violated the federal Endangered Species Act by approving Vineyard Wind and issuing a “defective” biological opinion detailing potential impacts on federally listed threatened and endangered species.
A spokesperson for the bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Vineyard Wind declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Vallorie Oliver, a founder of the Nantucket organization and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the group is “simply asking for real, factual, science-based answers to the impacts on our fragile marine environment.”
“I’m asking what will the cumulative effects be when these are all active?” Oliver said during a press conference Wednesday outside the State House, referring to a series of wind projects planned in federal offshore lease areas.
“What is the plan for the parts failure, oil spills or any other type of mistake that can happen? If the impacts to the marine life are negligible as stated in the environmental impact statement, why then was Vineyard Wind granted permission for incidental takes during project construction?”
An incidental take is a special permit issued under the Endangered Species Act that allows private or non-federal entities to harm, wound, harass, kill or collect an endangered species during a lawful act, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released a lengthy final environmental impact study in March 2021 which acknowledges that the area leased by Vineyard Wind and the offshore export cable corridor is a habitat for North Atlantic right whales. The company also agreed in 2019 to various measures aimed at protecting the whales.
Among them, Vineyard Wind plans to curtail turbine construction in the winter and early spring when North Atlantic right whales may be in the area, monitor the construction area to make sure whales are not near the site, dampen construction noise that may disturb the whales, institute vessel speed limits, and invest $3 million to develop and deploy technologies that help protect the whales.
Vineyard Wind issued the agreement alongside the National Wildlife Federation, the Conservation Law Foundation and the National Resources Defense Council.
“Vineyard Wind is committed to developing offshore wind power projects in the U.S. with robust standards of environmental protection during pre-development, construction, and operations and maintenance activities, while making a meaningful contribution to science that can support the responsible development of America’s vast offshore wind resources,” the document read.
Whale analysis challenged
The Nantucket Residents Against Turbines lawsuit charges that the federal agencies “botched” their analysis of Vineyard Wind’s potential to jeopardize the North Atlantic right whale. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released an opinion on the project in September 2020 that recommends a number of actions to prevent harm to marine life in the area of construction.
That opinion recommends, among other things, research into construction impacts on protected species, particularly the North Atlantic right whale, as well as a number of measures Vineyard Wind should take to minimize effects on the animal.
The environmental impact study also includes several lengthy sections dedicated to impacts on North Atlantic right whales, including effects of noise and pile driving on marine mammals as well as recommendation to protect the whale species.
Mary Chalke, co-founder of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, said renewable energy is a “no-brainer,” but questioned the safety of the North Atlantic right whale and Vineyard Wind’s voluntary protections.
“(NOAA/Fisheries) know their leading cause of death are vessel strikes and entanglement. They know these iconic, beloved whales are already clearly struggling and are now making the proposed turbine areas their last home,” Chalke said at the press conference.
“Vineyard Wind’s voluntary protections for these whales are unrealistic and full of loopholes. Yet, they say the years of construction and deafening pile driving and industrialization of our ocean will not jeopardize the species. Can you think of a worse place to put the first-in-the-nation, largest in the world wind power plant? I can’t.”
The group filed its suit with Natick lawyer Steven Brendemuehl.
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