Block Island states its case for and against Deepwater
The arguments that were made during the most recent hearing on the Deepwater Wind project came down to a deep and perhaps irreconcilable divide between two island philosophies.
Is the construction of five wind turbines three miles off the coast of Block Island a breach of the long-held tradition of conservation and preservation of the island’s natural beauty?
Or is the turbine project a lifeline to the very future of the island’s economic viability and stability?
Both views were heard by members of the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) subcommittee of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council on Monday, Feb. 24 at the Block Island School.
The former was perhaps most eloquently positioned by David Lewis, who said his family has had a presence on the island since 1817.
“One of the irreplaceable features of many outward looking seascapes is that when one looks, one sees something that predates history, one sees an expansive view to an open horizon that has looked the same for longer than man can contemplate,” Lewis said in prepared remarks. “Only the arrogance of man allows him to choose a point in time to say, ‘Here and now, I have the right to permanently alter the way something has always been into something else of my choosing.”
On the other side was Norris Pike, a descendent of an original family of settlers from 1661, who said that he was “110 percent behind Deepwater Wind.” As to why, Pike said, “This is a step in the right direction. We need to take this step. We don’t have the right to squander our children’s future and that’s what we’re going to do if you turn this project down. The windmills are the key to our future.”
This was the tone during the almost three and-a-half hour meeting. Respectful, thoughtful, measured. Out of the 160 or so attendees (the cafeteria was standing room only), 32 people spoke: 18 in favor, 12 against and two that could be characterized as neutral.
The meeting began with testimony from two Deepwater Wind representatives, Bob Billington, an engineer who is the project manager and has oversight of the fabrication of the wind turbines, and David Grassbaugh, who oversees the project’s wireless security. They were asked questions by an attorney representing Deepwater, Robin L. Main.
Billington spoke of the durability of the wind turbines that have been built in the North Sea off the coast of Belgium. He was asked by Main if any wind turbine had ever collapsed due to storm related events?
“There have been none,” said Billington. Damage, if and when it occurs, he said, is “usually restricted to the blades” and is primarily caused by lightning. He said the blades of newly built turbines have wires inside that act as lightning rods that can mitigate any damage.
“Let’s talk about Block Island,” Main said. She said that no off-shore wind turbines had been built in the Atlantic. “How will they act in a storm event?” she asked.
Billington said that weather data from the last 150 years had been studied, and models had been created to draw up “hundreds of thousands of calculations to make sure the appropriate safety measures apply.”
The next witness, Grassbaugh, was asked bluntly by Main: “Can the system be hacked?” Grassbaugh responded that it would be “quite difficult.” The two primary areas of concern, he said, is if a hacker attempts to turn the wind turbines off when they should be running, or if they would be turned on in conditions when they should not run. “If they are instructed to restart in wind that was too high, the turbines would turn themselves off,” said Grassbaugh. He said the opposite was also true if a hacker had shut the turbines off when they should be running — they are programmed to restart.
The SAMP subcommittee’s legal counsel, John T. Longo, explained to the crowd that the committee had a restricted purview when considering the Deepwater Wind project, which came down to three guidelines: 1) to ensure that the turbine project did not conflict with any resource management plan or program that has been enacted by the CRMC; 2) that it did not cause any significant damage to any activity adopted by the CRMC; and 3) that there was no significant damage to the state’s coastal region. Longo stated that electric rates or financial issues were not considered by the CRMC.
In an orderly fashion, residents rose to make individual pleas. The issues were wide-ranging and not always on point. Resident Bill Penn stood first and said that he was “very much in favor of this project,” yet when he started to mention the economic benefit that Penn would personally experience, one of the commissioners gently chided, “You’re off point already.”
Narragansett resident Myron Waldman, who created an opposition group, Deepwater Resistance, said “If you take away what is precious, it won’t stop here.”
Another island resident, Fred Leeder, touched on the ambivalence some in the audience seemed to feel about the project. “Is this the best project? I don’t know,” he said. “But we have to start somewhere.” Leeder drew the biggest laugh of the afternoon when he mentioned that the earlier speaker, Myron Waldman, had lamented that Deepwater was dividing the community. “We find something to divide us every week,” said Leeder.
There were more: Henry duPont and Martha Ball spoke in favor. Chris Warfel, Pat Doyle and Mike Hickey against. Edie Blane said the project “had been jammed down our throats.” Everett Shorey offered a new option: on-shore wind turbines for the island. Mary Jane Balser identified herself as probably the single largest consumer of energy on the island. Because of that, she said to the commissioners, they would probably think she’d be “so delighted you’ll be putting these windmills out there, but you are sorely wrong.”
Perhaps the oddest moment came when long-time opponent Maggie Delia began her presentation with some personal history regarding her involvement with conservation, and how she personally interacts with some who share the opposite of her own view of the project. As she spoke, Chair Anne Maxwell Livingston interrupted her and asked if Delia had “had a point” to make about the wind farm.
Delia stood silent for a second and then said, “I forgive you for that.” Delia said she spoke later to Livingston, and Delia said that Livingston had apologized.
The CRMC had a final hearing on Deepwater Wind on Thursday, Feb. 27, in Narragansett from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Coastal Institute Auditorium, URI Bay Campus, South Ferry Road, in Narragansett. After that hearing, the SAMP subcommittee will schedule a workshop to vote, which will then be forwarded to the CRMC. Those meetings have not yet been scheduled.