Wind Farm Review Needs Another Year

Army Corps of Engineers Says Issue Complex; ‘We're Not Trying to Meet Some Artificial Deadline'

By MANDY LOCKE

Determining the fate of a 130-turbine wind farm development proposed for the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound will take the United States Army Corps of Engineers at least another year.

"A lot of times studies don't move along quickly" said Timothy Dugan, spokesman for the Army Corps' New England division in Concord. "It gets bogged down. This [issue] being so complex, I don't think anyone imagined this would be done quickly. We're trying to get it done correctly. We're not trying to meet some artificial deadline. We want the project determined soundly."

Word of the extended permit review for American's first offshore wind farm proposal came this week as a powerhouse group of energy experts reviews criteria to determine alternative locations for the private energy development.

"Some of the most knowledgeable people in the business are now making sure the criteria make sense. The industry is changing so much, and it's possible the industry is changing faster than engineering requirements we list. It could affect the areas we evaluate," said Mr. Dugan. The peer review committee includes experts from American and European wind energy organizations such as the European Wind Energy Association and the Renewable Energy Research Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Cape Wind Associates filed plans in the fall of 2001 with the Army Corps to erect 170 turbines on 28 square miles of shallow water known as Horseshoe Shoal. The private developer erased 40 turbines from the plan this January, freeing up four square miles of the shoal in waters about nine miles off the Vineyard and just four miles from the nearest point on Cape Cod.

In early 2002, Army Corps officials predicted the draft environmental impact statement - a full evaluation of the projects benefits and drawbacks compiled through independent studies and expert evaluations - would be ready for public comment by the spring of 2003. The new timeline pushes the final permitting phase more than a year beyond early predictions.

But Mr. Dugan said the lengthy review is necessary. Major decisions such as selecting alternative site criteria have the potential to drive the whole review process, he said. "If that part is weak, then the whole study will be weak."

Since Cape Wind's proposal was first made public in the summer of 2001, debates have loomed - from Beacon Hill to Capital Hill - over the legality of permitting developments in federal waters off America's coast. The Army Corps' authority to license such structures in federal waters, as evidenced by a federal court challenge to Cape Wind's data tower permit issued by the Army Corps in September of 2002, is under scrutiny both in the federal legislature and in the courts.

Last week, the state Senate overwhelmingly approved a study commissioned on wind farms - a measure the governor undertook earlier this summer when he named a task force to evaluate ocean management. The Senate bill, which was sponsored by Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, is expected to lay the groundwork for ocean zoning - a map which would designate appropriate places to develop wind farms in state waters off Massachusetts.

The Army Corps also officially added two new alternative sites this week to a list being winnowed by the peer review committee. The harbors of Boston and New Bedford are now being considered along with 14 other land and sea locations in the area.

"We're now trying to boil it down to a short list of alternative sites. Determining how many viable sites there are will determine how long it takes from here," Mr. Dugan said.

"We'll pick sites to study that are somewhere between reasonable and feasible," he added.

Once the list of alternative sites is final, an independent consultant, Environmental Science Services of Wellesley and Sandwich, will work with the Army Corps to study the sites' characteristics. Cape Wind must pick up the tab for consultant fees.

Once the environmental impact statement is released by the Army Corps, the public will be allowed a comment period. The Army Corps is also commissioning the help of experts such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Division of Marine Fisheries to assess the accuracy of data being filed as part of the permit application.