Placating the Fleet

Deepwater cites lack of harm off Block Island

The Harry Miller, a 50-foot vessel that recently conducted surveys of the sea floor both in Gardiner’s Bay and off the south shore of the Town of East Hampton, illustrates Deepwater Wind’s engagement with stakeholders as the Rhode Island company plans the construction of a 15-turbine, 90-megawatt wind farm approximately 30 miles off Montauk.

That was the message from Clint Plummer, Deepwater Wind’s vice president of development, who spoke with The Star hours before he and other company representatives met with members of the East Hampton Town Trustees and residents, including commercial fishermen, at the trustees’ harbor management committee meeting on Aug. 16.

Initial plans called for the wind farm’s transmission cable to make landfall at Gardiner’s Bay. Fishermen have loudly complained that plowing a trench in the sea bottom to lay the cable poses multiple, unacceptable risks to their livelihood. As a consequence, Mr. Plummer told the gathering at the trustees’ office in the Lamb Building in Amagansett, a southern route is under serious consideration.

Planning and construction of the South Fork Wind Farm, Mr. Plummer told the gathering, should parallel that of the Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine installation built by Deepwater Wind that has been operating since December. Placement of the turbines in that installation, the nation’s first offshore wind farm, were moved eastward from their initial location in response to concerns from fishermen, he said.

Meanwhile, a range of ongoing postconstruction surveys around the Block Island Wind Farm suggest no detrimental impact to commercial or recreational fishing, or to marine life itself, said Drew Carey of Inspire Environmental, a consulting group.

While data are still being collected, Mr. Carey said it was notable that, despite the degree of construction “and the fact that we were trawling literally past the foundations” as they were driven into the sea floor, “we were catching live fish, and we were catching basically the same number of fish that they caught at other times,” within the range of year-to-year variation.

Preliminary survey results also show no negative impact on lobster abundance in the vicinity of the wind farm, he said. “Oddly enough, the capture was actually higher during construction than prior to construction,” though that would parallel 2016 as a whole, which he said was a good year for Rhode Island’s lobstermen.

Deepwater Wind representatives including Aileen Kenney, its vice president of permitting and environmental affairs, emphasized the exhaustive studies the company is conducting, the comprehensive, multivolume applications it must submit to as many as 26 regulatory agencies beginning next year, and the community input they said is both welcome and essential to the project’s ultimate success.

If all goes according to plan, permits will be submitted beginning in the first quarter of 2018, permit approvals would happen in 2021, and construction would commence the same year. The wind farm would be operational late in 2022. Studies that began in 2011, Ms. Kenney said, would continue at least through 2024.

Commercial fishermen in attendance remained skeptical, however, disputing Deepwater Wind officials’ contention that there has been no evidence of fish kills resulting from driving the turbine foundations into the sea floor. They also criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service, which certified Deepwater Wind staffers tasked with observing protected species, calling the agency generally not credible.

Julia Prince, a Montauk resident who is serving as a liaison between Deepwater Wind and the fishing industry on the former’s behalf, pleaded with the latter group to conduct an open dialogue. “There are people out there saying, ‘Don’t speak to Julia,’ so I’ve had a lot of no phone calls back, no emails back. I’m trying to engage people.”

Rick Drew, a deputy clerk of the trustees who leads the harbor management committee, emphasized the importance of the proposed wind farm to the town. There are 53 commercially viable fish species in the area Deepwater Wind has leased from the federal government, he said. “We’re so blessed,” he said of “the community that’s fished here for 300 years,” calling the sea’s bounty “a very sacred component of who we are.” He implored Deepwater Wind officials to locate and build only on bottomland that will not disrupt marine habitat, nurseries, or foraging. “Do spots like that exist within the lease area?” he asked. “Can you guys identify those spots? Is that feasible?”

The goal, Mr. Carey said, is to map the sea floor in detail sufficient to find those areas “with absolute minimal impact on the habitat. How well we can balance that has yet to be determined. That’s the challenge right now.”

The Deepwater Wind representatives pledged to return in the fall with further data from postconstruction surveys of the Block Island Wind Farm and more mapping and analysis of the waters and sea floor where the South Fork Wind Farm is to be situated.

Mr. Drew reiterated the hope that a southern route for the transmission cable would be secured. “Please do whatever you can . . . and share your progress,” he said.

“We are evaluating all the options,” Mr. Plummer said. “This is something that we want to be part of the process” so that the wind farm’s final design is one “the entire community can feel was a consensus decision.”