America’s first major offshore wind power generation project, Cape Wind, has cleared a key hurdle after a comprehensive federal environmental study found it would have no lasting major adverse impacts on wildlife, navigation, fishing, tourism or recreation.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Minerals Management Service, running to almost 2,000 pages, will now be subject to a process of community consultation, but if no major new concerns surface, federal approval of the $1 billion project appears likely by around the end of the year.
Residents of the Vineyard will be able to express their views at a meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on March 12.
And if all goes according to the developers’ plans, the wind farm could be operating by 2011.
If it goes ahead, the project will see 130 turbines installed 1,800 to 2,700 feet apart over 25 square miles on Horseshoe Shoal, in federal waters in the center of Nantucket Sound, about nine miles from Edgartown, and 9.3 miles from Oak Bluffs.
At full capacity the project would produce 420 megawatts of electricity, with average production of 182 megawatts, or about 75 per cent of total demand on the Cape and Islands.
The draft EIS found little substance to most of the objections raised against the controversial project — including the suggestion that it would be better sited elsewhere — except for the aesthetic one. There would be a moderate impact on “visual resources” from the shore and a major one for boats in proximity to the turbines, the report says.
The report rated impacts on a four-step scale, from negligible, meaning effectively none, through minor, meaning impacts would be either short-term or capable of mitigation, moderate, meaning impacts which were unavoidable and irreversible although no threat to the viability of the resource, and major, meaning the affected resource would not recover completely, regardless of mitigation efforts.
The draft report also distinguished between impacts during the construction and operation phases of the project.
As a result, for example, there would be moderate effects on some fish eggs, larvae and bottom dwelling life forms during construction, when pilings were being installed and cables dug into the ocean floor to connect the turbines, but negligible to minor effects on fisheries after construction.
Apart from its effect on the views, the most significant negative identified was the potential impact on some bird life and bats. There could be a minor to moderate impact, once the turbines are running, on coastal and marine birds, the draft report found.
There would be only minor effects on port facilities and boat traffic, except for some moderate impact on sailing vessels, and negligible to minor impacts on fishing.
The report also referred to minor noise effects during construction, but negligible ones after that.
Cape Wind would have negligible effects on vegetation, including eel grass beds, and on wildlife other than birds, a negligible effect on urban or suburban infrastructure, and possible minor ones on tourism and recreation, oceanography, climate, air or water quality, marine mammals and aviation.
The issue of air traffic, however, remains contentious. The project is yet to be cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration and opponents made much of the fact that the FAA had identified a “presumed hazard” in the turbines.
But a spokesman for Cape Wind, Mark Rogers, said there was no determination of presumed hazard by the FAA. In fact, the FAA automatically presumes a hazard until it makes a determination. The administration confirmed its process is under way.
Other objections to the proposal also still stand. The Steamship Authority remains concerned about possible interference with its boats’ radar systems.
Yesterday SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said the boat line remained concerned and was awaiting a determination by the Coast Guard about the issue. Radar interference could potentially force ferry operators, the SSA and Hy Line Cruises to alter some of their routes to give the wind farm a wider berth, which would add to their fuel costs, he said.
And Island fishermen remain skeptical about suggestions that the impact on their activities on Horseshoe Shoal will be minimal.
Warren Doty, the former head of the Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said he did not accept the EIS assessment.
“One of our biggest fisheries on Martha’s Vineyard is the conch fishery and Horseshoe Shoal is the spawning ground for conchs,” he said.
“These are shellfish that live on the bottom and there’s going to be a lot of dredging and turmoil stirring up the bottom during construction. It’s hard to believe that will have minimum impact on the fishery.
“The shoal has also been a traditional fishing ground for net fishing and again it’s hard to believe it won’t have an impact on boats that want to travel back and forth with their nets.
“I believe it will have significant impact on the fishing on Horseshoe Shoal.”
No doubt such objections will be aired during the public comment period, but the overall positive tone of the EIS was welcomed by the proponents, who have faced strong, well-funded and well-connected opposition over the years. Both Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and former Gov. Mitt Romney tried to kill the project.
The new governor, Deval Patrick, however, strongly supports it, which is expected to ease its passage through the myriad regulatory obstacles.
And Mr. Rogers acknowledged many obstacles still remain, although Cape Wind was continuing to push to consolidate many of them.
“After the public comment period and some more work on this document, later this year, late summer perhaps, they will come out with a final impact statement. That will be followed by another public comment period and sometime after that they will render a decision, probably around the end of this year.
“Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Cape Wind will continue with its petition of the Massachusetts Energy Facility Siting Board for a composite certificate,” he said.
“That process is under way now, and I believe they expect to make a decision some time this summer. If granted that would have the effect of providing for every state and local permit, save one.”
The only outstanding permission then needed at a state level would be from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, which has to make a “consistency determination” establishing whether the project is consistent with the state’s overall coastal zone management plan.
Three other federal permissions also are yet to be given, from the Coast Guard (covering the radar issue), the FAA (covering the air traffic hazard issue) and a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
But the proponents were well pleased with developments this week.
In a press conference after the EIS was released, Cape Wind president Jim Gordon said it “validated” the wind farm as “the right project in the right place at the right time.”