Fishermen voice fears at first wind farm confab

Mon, 11/03/2008 - 6:00am
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The thought of a wind farm in waters off Rhode Island is “frightening” to commercial fishermen, an industry representative told state officials Wednesday at a meeting of those potentially affected by a proposed wind farm. 

Meeting at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus, representatives from environmental and industry groups as well as coastal towns listened as state officials outlined their plan to map the ocean off Rhode Island for wind farms. While no site has been identified, a wind farm could land in waters off Block Island. Where the farm goes depends heavily on the results of an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) being undertaken by a team of researchers led by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

The state agency put together the 43-member stakeholder group to provide a forum to air concerns, and concerns they heard. First Warden Kim Gaffett was in attendance to represent Block Island.

The group’s chair, a URI faculty researcher Ken Payne, took great pains to stress the stakeholder group was an opportunity for everyone with an interest in the project to be heard.

“The group is meant to solicit everyone’s input,” Payne said. “No backroom deals.”

But Payne’s statement didn’t allay everyone’s fear.

“I can’t stress enough how frightening this is for the commercial fishing industry,” said Lanny Dellinger, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association. “I see people getting displaced.”

And Ted Platz, a fisherman with the Rhode Island Monkfishermen’s Association, complained that the so-called stakeholders were brought in after the research projects were already approved and the industry would have no say in the research conducted. He also complained that the $3.2 million project — to be reimbursed by the wind farm developer — appeared high.

CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate responded by saying that the study’s cost was small when compared to other projects. He said study for the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod cost more than $30 million. Fugate also noted the state Economic Development Commission evaluated and approved the proposal and will keep an eye on the finances.

Addressing Dellinger, Fugate said the SAMP project would identify waters not only ideal for wind farms, but also those that should be protected for fishermen.

“There’s an opportunity also, not just a negative aspect,” he said, saying that fishermen armed with SAMP data could petition federal agencies not to allow a project that would threaten commercial fishing.

While Dellinger and Platz remained skeptical, Fugate did receive some support from Richard Fuka, the president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance.

“Believe me of the many processes I’ve been involved in this is as wide open as it gets,” he said.

During the meeting participants learned that a team of about 50 state and university scientists overseen by URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and CRMC are about two months into the SAMP. The plan will study waters stretching 20 miles from the mainland and aim to identify major obstacles — like shipping lanes, cables and environmentally sensitive areas — that would impede a wind farm. Fugate explained that the 20-mile number was chosen because that’s the maximum a cable can carry electricity using today’s technology.

Scientists will then turn a close eye to the sites left to provide state-selected wind farm developer Deepwater Wind a leg up when the company applies for federal permits. Officials expect to complete the SAMP by 2010. Deepwater has said it wants the first turbines in the water by 2012.

“We are about to embark on something that has never been done in the United States and as far as we can tell anywhere in the world, so we will truly be the first,” Fugate said.

While the SAMP will offer potential wind farm sites, Deepwater Wind will select the final location. The company will then need to petition the federal Minerals Management Service for the right to build the farm. The SAMP does not replace an environmental impact statement, but could provide some of the underlying data.

Fugate said the SAMP is also important because it will give the state, in essence, veto power over projects in federal waters included within the plan. If the state can demonstrate that a project is inconsistent with state regulations it can protest to the federal government and have “leverage” to scuttle the project, Fugate said.

Like most of the stakeholders, Gaffett chose to listen rather than engage the fishing industry groups. However, after the meeting she said she had faith in the process that could have major repercussions for Block Island and its residents.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “I’m a process person so I think this is a good first step. I’m sure Block Island is going to be protected.”

The group plans monthly meetings open to the public.