Island Hearing on Wind Farm Yields Evening of Lively Debate

By MANDY LOCKE

A crowd of Vineyard residents registered their concerns with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a proposed private energy project that aims to plant 170 windmills in 28 square miles of shallow water in Nantucket Sound. For nearly two hours last Thursday night an audience of 60 entered comments into the formal record during a scoping session held in conjunction with a Martha's Vineyard Commission meeting in the basement of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown.

A line of fishermen, boaters, Martha's Vineyard commissioners and green energy proponents stepped to the microphone to dissect the project's merits and flaws. Many warned of its potential impact on fishermen and marine life, although a few endorsed the proposal to produce energy in an environmentally friendly manner.

The comments and suggestions will be folded into the environmental impact statement to be used by the Army Corps in evaluating whether to permit a $600 million project that promises to add up to 420 megawatts - 170 megawatts on average - of renewable energy to the New England power grid. The Army Corps is also collecting input for the permitting of a scientific measuring tower which would collect data about bird migratory patterns as well as wind and water conditions before construction of the wind farm.

The turbines would dominate Horseshoe Shoals, a body of rich spawning water in a federally regulated area of Nantucket Sound.

"Why Horseshoe Shoals? Quite simply - it's where the wind is," said Jim Gordon, a partner with Cape Wind Associates, the private company seeking a permit for the wind farm. "It's a shallow and protected environment, and it's near the demand center."

Each of the 170 turbine columns would stand 270 feet above mean water, and the tallest blade tip would tower some 40 stories above the water's surface - a height taller than the Sagamore Bridge. Foundations would anchor the 22-foot-diameter bases 60 to 80 feet into the ocean floor. The windmills would be spaced a half-mile apart or less.

The project has spurred a battle between environmentalists. Some passionately defend the delicate ecosystem of Nantucket Sound and the rich fish propagation in Horseshoe Shoals. A smaller number argue that it is imperative to embrace renewable energy projects which would inevitably lessen America's dependence on nuclear energy, coal burning and oil drilling.

Apart from these concerns, some fear the potential impact on their own and others' livelihoods.

Jonathan Mayhew, a commercial fisherman, challenged Mr. Gordon's statements that the wind farm would have little effect on fishermen because it would occupy only two acres of surface water. "There are about 200 to 300 licenses for mobile-gear fishermen fishing for squid, scup and flounder," he said. "I can't tow my net over submerged electrical cables; I might hit my door. And I can't simply get a license to go potting - that's limited entry."

The area in question is "about a third of the size of Martha's Vineyard," said recreational fisherman and Vineyard Haven resident Henry Burt. "At any time, there are 20 to 25 draggers out there. . . . Those people are making a living.

"You're also killing it for pleasure fishermen," he added.

Anna Edey of West Tisbury and others took issue with a statement by Cape Wind Associates that the project would impact marine life only minimally.

"It's such a richly vegetated area," she said. "It's a nursery for shellfish that live in the sound. The ecological disaster seems obvious."

Russell Walton, a Chilmark resident and marine biologist, said he worried that marine mammals such as whales might have their migratory patterns affected by high frequency beeping. It is unclear at this time how much lighting and noise apparatus might be needed for the wind farm to meet Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard standards.

Several fishermen questioned where Cape Wind would dump the ocean bed fill replaced by the foundations of the turbines.

"That's five and a half million cubic yards. That can't be allowed to dissipate," commercial fisherman Chris Murphy said, explaining that sand allowed to float into the water columns could kill fish eggs.

Mr. Mayhew, who also pilots planes in the region, raised the issue of aerial safety, for birds and humans both. He noted that traffic over Nantucket Sound often forces private pilots to fly at or below 430 feet, the projected height of the turbine blades.

As for birds' ability to stay out of harm's way, Mr. Mayhew said, "Those aren't the smartest birds. I've had them fly into my boat."

Others demanded that the Army Corps ensure there is money to take down the windmills if Cape Wind were to fail financially.

"In 20, 30, 50 years, when its useful life span passes, there are no provisions to remove them," Barnstable resident Peter Kenney said.

Project proponents spoke of clean energy and the region's opportunity to host America's first offshore wind farm.

"It's rare that an environmentalist gets to support anything," said West Tisbury resident John Abrams. "We need to embrace this and make sure there are as few mistakes in our backyard as possible."

"I wish we didn't need more power," said Chris Fried of Tisbury, "but we all love to buy more and more electrical devices. We have to bite the bullet and go with the least damaging solution."

The issue of visual pollution took a back seat to many other concerns, but a number of people pointed out differences between Cape Winds' portrayal of low visibility and opponents' visions of blinking, beeping turbines within view of every stretch of the Vineyard's easternmost beaches.

The closest windmill would sit eight miles from Fuller Street Beach in Edgartown, nine miles from the Oak Bluffs ferry station, five miles from Hyannis and almost fourteen miles from Nantucket.

Cape Wind is "putting a nice spin on [its] turbines," which, it said, will appear "thumb high," Mr. Mayhew said. "Not if it's lit for FAA and the Coast Guard."

"I don't want to go and see a Coney Island," said Mr. Burt.

"In terms of visual pollution - they couldn't do much better," Robert Douglas added.

In the end, the discussion turned to dollar signs.

"The money's either coming off your electric bill or going into [Cape Wind Associates'] pocket. It pays to know who's on the other side of the table when the cards are dealt," said Mr. Kenney.

"This is a cost savings. It's a commodity that could be sold to other parts of the country. How much will we get?" asked commission member Roger Wey.

"We rely on the tourism. If we give up a large section, there's going to be an economic impact," commission member Jennie Greene said.

Islanders asked how Cape Wind might compensate them - both financially and as recipients of the wind farm energy - for use of their backyard waters.

"The [New England power] grid - what will it do for those living with the impact?" asked Stig Persson.

"Pilot projects are always most expensive. Who will be paying?" Mr. Persson asked.

But the crowd did not leave the Army Corps with all complaints and no suggestions. Several speakers tossed around some alternate locations. Buzzards Bay, Otis Air Force Base, Noman's Land all got a nomination, and many urged the Army Corps to use extreme caution if they choose to permit the project.

Mr. Murphy suggested permitting one turbine to understand the effects of such a device on marine life before permitting all 170.

"I understand the Army Corps is under obligation of a time table, but I hope there is no rush to collect data," commission member Andrew Woodruff said.

"The federal government has never been accused of running too quickly," Army Corps moderator Larry Rosenberg replied.

The Army Corps expects to have a draft environmental impact statement ready for public review by January of 2003.

In other business, the MVC approved the written decision for reconstruction of the Tisbury Inn.

The commission also voted to hold a public hearing to officially rescind the Chappaquiddick designation of critical planning concern on May 16. A vote to remove the designation would end the building moratorium three weeks before the automatic cutoff in June.