Army Corps of Engineers Releases Long-Awaited Environmental Report for Controversial Cape Wind Plan
The controversial Cape Wind project vaulted back into the news this week with the long-awaited release of a draft environmental impact statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After three years of deliberation and months of anticipation, the environmental report found that the wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound would have economic and air quality benefits but little or no long-term negative impacts.
A key win for the developer Cape Wind Associates, the report gives the private company a strong boost as it heads into the next phase of the permitting process for the plan to build a giant wind farm in Horseshoe Shoal.
The impact statement released Tuesday triggered a 60-day public comment period, which will include four public hearings in the region. A hearing will be held on the Vineyard Monday, Dec. 6, at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School from 6 to 10 p.m.
"It's been a long time in coming," Cape Wind communications director Mark Rodgers said about the draft impact statement this week. "We're absolutely pleased with the report, which verifies many of the things we've been saying about Cape Wind for the past three years."
If approved, the $700 million project would be the nation's first offshore wind farm. Cape Wind wants to build a transfer substation and 130 turbines, each 420 feet tall, over almost 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal. The turbine closest to the Island would be 5.5 miles northeast of Cape Pogue and about nine miles from Edgartown. Developers estimate the wind farm would produce an average annual output of about 170 megawatts, enough electricity to power roughly three-quarters of the Cape and Islands.
Since it was first unveiled in 2001, the ambitious project has sparked an expensive and divisive battle fraught with politics. In three years the contentious debate has spread from Peaked Hill to Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill.
After an executive summary of the draft was leaked to the press early this week, Sen. Edward Kennedy issued a statement asking for more state and federal rules, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney flew to the White House to talk about his opposition to the project with President George W. Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card.
Cape Wind's chief opponent, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound - a well-funded, Cape-based nonprofit formed in response to the project - criticized the draft report and questioned its objectivity.
"We totally expected the [environmental impact statement] to be favorable. We've had doubts about the credibility of the report from the very beginning," said alliance executive director Susan Nickerson, who hosted a lightly attended informational meeting in Edgartown on Wednesday. "All the input we have been giving the Army Corps has been ignored," she said.
Ms. Nickerson said Cape Wind wrote the report and criticized the Army Corps for relying heavily on consultants paid for by the developer. But the Army Corps - the lead permitting authority for the project because it is planned for federal waters - maintained that 17 different federal, state and local agencies helped prepare the draft, which included hundreds of public comments assembled in spring 2002.
The Army Corps said the applicant is supposed to fund the study, which would otherwise be paid for with tax dollars. Mr. Rodgers said Cape Wind has spent more than $15 million on the project so far, the bulk of it for scientific and engineering studies required by the Corps.
"There's nothing wrong with the applicant paying the bill, but in this case the applicant drove the process and chose the consultants," Ms. Nickerson said. "The Army Corps is doing the best job they can at the mercy of this juggernaut."
In 2003 the alliance itself raised more than $1.7 million in public donations, and spent more than $2.4 million - almost $1 million of it on legal fees and more than $400,000 on advertising and public relations.
Both Cape Wind and the alliance urged area residents this week to read the draft and participate in the upcoming public hearings. Some are also questioning whether the 60-day comment period allows enough time for people to properly acquaint themselves with the 3,800-page report.
Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary, a vocal opponent of the Cape Wind project, joined the alliance in asking the Army Corps to extend the public review period from two to six months.
"I think it's absurd to have a 60-day comment period during the holidays," Ms. Nickerson said. "Sixty days is a farce for a controversial project that's the first of its kind in the country. This extension is critical, because otherwise the public is going to be shortchanged in their ability to participate in this process."
The Army Corps said it would consider written requests to extend the period, but noted it has already extended the period from the minimum 45 days required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The current 60-day period will end Jan. 10.
"They're trying to delay this for the sake of delay," Mr. Rodgers said of attempts to extend the public comment period. "People have been trying to delay, if not end, this project at each and every opportunity. We feel there have been too many delays already."
After the comment period closes, the Army Corps will write a final impact statement, possibly to be released by next spring or summer. After another 30-day public comment period, the Corps will prepare a record and decide whether to issue a permit for the project. The Corps also could add conditions to any permit approval.
If all goes as planned for the developer, Cape Wind could conceivably begin the two-year construction project next winter. But legal challenges are expected to cause delays.
"This is just one juncture, and there are still many more forks in the road," Ms. Nickerson said.
The draft impact statement evaluates the project's benefits and detriments on a wide range of environmental and public interest issues. Some of the findings include:
* Fishing: No substantial impact on commercial or recreational fishing. Some displacement during construction, with populations expected to rapidly return.
* Birds: Turbines could kill about one bird a day, but not enough to cause population declines.
* Visual: Adverse visual effect on the character of designated historic districts, including on Nantucket and the mid-Cape. However, no effect was found for the Martha's Vineyard Camp Ground Historic District or three other historic properties in Oak Bluffs. Flashing lights would affect nighttime views.
* Noise: No noise impacts for onshore locations or recreational boaters.
* Navigation: Minimal temporary navigation impacts during construction. Large spacing between turbines - from one-third to half a mile apart - would allow unrestricted and safe access for vessels currently able to navigate on the shoal. The turbines would be clearly marked and recognized as aids to navigation.
* Air quality: Significant air emission reductions and improved air quality in the region.
* Economics: U.S. economy benefits ranging from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Average annual savings of $25 million for New England customers with additional savings for natural gas customers, by placing downward pressure on the price of other sources of power.