Facts, not innuendo, needed in whale deaths

Fri, 11/03/2017 - 2:30pm

As a publisher with more than four decades of experience, I am alarmed by the spread of false news stories through social media. I recently witnessed first hand how this trend can damage attempts to have a sensible, fact-based discussion of serious issues. 

Several weeks ago, my wife Betty and I were approached by a Block Island business owner who was disturbed by a story she had received from a friend detailing how the Block Island Wind Farm is causing an increase in the death of whales. She cited the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as the source of the information. She asked if we could confirm the story, particularly since we had extensively covered the development of the wind farm as former publishers of The Block Island Times. 

It turned out that the story was widespread and its source was a blog by an entity opposed to wind energy and published by The Daily Caller, a conservative news organization. Similar stories have surfaced in Britain and Europe. 

In truth, a spike in deaths of whales up and down the east coast of the United States has left scientists puzzled. No firm conclusion has been reached about the cause. There is a general consensus in the government and scientific communities that it is highly unlikely that five wind turbines off the Block Island coast could possibly be responsible for whale deaths that have occurred as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida.

Last week I was able to learn more about the wind farm and about its impact on ocean life when I was invited to join a ferry trip to the farm hosted by the National Wildlife Federation. I serve on the advisory board of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, an organization whose purpose is to support informed, accurate coverage of climate change and environmental issues. 

The trip included presentations by employees of state governments and environmental organizations. Catherine Bowes, Senior Policy Representative — Climate and Energy for NWF, spoke enthusiastically about the Federation’s strong advocacy for wind and other green energy programs such as solar power. They believe that wind power is beneficial to both marine- and land-based wildlife and less harmful than other forms of energy. 

I asked her directly about the possible relationship between the wind farm and whale deaths. Her answer was a firm “no” to the existence of any evidence to support the claim. While she noted that the matter was still being studied by government and professional organizations, she said that state, federal and scientific representatives have spoken out to assert that there is nothing to indicate that wind turbines in the ocean have anything at all to do with the whale mortality rates. Bowes also expressed real concern about the spread of false stories with no basis in fact.

It was also enlightening to learn from others on the ferry that Rhode Island is being hailed as the national leader in wind energy. More are coming, and it’s easy to understand the attraction. 

The Block Island project produces thirty megawatts of power. Projects proposed for Massachusetts will produce 1,600 megawatts, while installations in New York will generate 2,400 megawatts, Maryland will create 400 megawatts and New Jersey will result in 1,100 megawatts of power. Our small state, once the birthplace of the industrial revolution with Slater Mill, has sparked a new revolution in clean energy. 

Without exception, other environmental advocates on the trip argued the offshore wind farm will be a huge boon to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ocean that brings us to this magical place. It was noted that the five turbines off our shores have alone replaced the consumption of one million gallons of fossil fuels every year.

I came away from the trip to the wind farm impressed with the engineering marvel represented by the five turbines. I urge others to take a tour.

It was gratifying to celebrate something in which Rhode Island was the leader rather than a reluctant follower. I was also reassured that the troubling mortality rate for whales is highly unlikely to be caused by offshore wind turbines. That said, I am encouraged that scientists will not rest until they have confirmed that fact.

I fully confess to having been an advocate for the Block Island Wind Farm. I also respect the fact that other people may hold differing views.

To paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. No one, however, has a right to invent his or her own facts. It used to be that facts were stubborn things. In the internet era, sites and “news” services have sprung up that truck in innuendo and rumor. They exist to confirm prejudices, to foment discord, and to deny the material world and the science behind it.