Published February 06. 2013 4:00AM
Deepwater Wind is just five days away from another milestone in its plan to erect the nation's first offshore wind energy project 3 miles from the southeast shore of Block Island.
On Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close its public comment period for the $300 million project and begin considering the pros and cons raised in the 80-plus letters received, said Michael Elliott, project manager for the corps.
Deepwater Wind officials, who declined to comment this week, will be given a chance to respond to any concerns raised, Elliott said.
In October, Deepwater Wind applied to the corps and other government agencies for key permits for the project. One of those other agencies, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, received about 75 comments by its Feb. 4 deadline, said Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the agency.
Deepwater Wind application
Based on his initial review, Elliott said, the comments are about evenly divided between supporters and opponents. Federal and state agencies including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service will also weigh in before the Monday deadline, but discussions with the agencies thus far indicate "there are no show-stoppers," he said.
Elliott said the corps will next decide, in cooperation with other agencies, about scheduling joint public meetings or public hearings on the project. A timeline for a decision on the permit has not been set. He added that the Army Corps would make its decision in consultation with the other state and federal agencies.
"We won't go ahead unless the (other agencies) give their assent," he said.
Among the comments sent to both the CRMC and the Army Corps are letters from the New Shoreham Town Council, the local authority on Block Island. The Jan. 15 letters, sent after a 3-2 vote of the council, supports the project based on an analysis by the council-appointed Electrical Utility Task Group. In a report included with the letters, the task group concludes that the wind farm would "provide significant economic and environmental benefits to Block Island."
It would lower electricity rates on the island, now among the highest in the country, by 40 percent, the report said, and significantly reduce dependence on pollution-emitting diesel generators that now provide the island's power. It would also provide a utility cable connecting Block Island to the mainland, a $20 million to $40 million expense the island could not afford otherwise, the report said.
In its letter, the council requested that public hearings take place on Block Island and that "substantive, on-going biological assessments be required during and post construction." It also asked that the impact of the turbines on the island's tourism economy and property values be considered, and that the long-term impact of replacement costs of the cable be examined.
First Warden Kimberly Gaffett, who has publicly stated her support for the project, could not be reached for comment.
The two councilors who voted against sending the letter, Christopher Warfel and Sean McGarry, are both new to the council. They said they believe island residents have not had an adequate chance thus far to voice their concerns about the project. Warfel recently created an online petition against the project that had 216 signatures when it was sent to the CRMC Saturday. As of Tuesday, the petition, which will also be sent to the Army Corps, had 225 signatures.
Among the many criticisms of the project listed on the petition are: inadequate analysis by the town; incorrect representations by Deepwater of the potential benefits; concerns about provisions for decommissioning the turbines; and objections that "the project has been forced upon the taxpayers and residents of Rhode Island by Legislature fiat."
Warfel, an engineer with ENTECH Engineering, said his own analysis leads him to seriously doubt the fundamental assertions being made by Deepwater about the financial and technical viability of the project.
"This whole project is one of the most expensive ways I can think of generating renewable energy, and it would be risky for Block Island," he said.
McGarry said the project has divided the small community of year-round Block Island residents and that the potential benefits have been exaggerated.
"I'm definitely not opposed to alternative energy, or wind energy, but I am opposed to an industrial wind farm 2½ to 3 miles off the Southeast Lighthouse," he said, referring to the historic landmark located on the shore nearest where the turbines would be built. "It would be one of the greatest environmental disasters ever to hit Block Island."
Deepwater Wind, while declining comment on the close of the public comment period and upcoming review phase of its application, did issue a news release this week announcing an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation. Deepwater agreed to schedule construction of the turbines to reduce the chances of harming migrating right whales, saying it will not drive piles before May 1 of the project's construction year. Right whales have been seen feeding in the vicinity of the project area throughout April.