Disputes over South Fork Wind Farm payout to fishermen continue with CRMC vote delayed

THE R.I. COASTAL Resources Management Council has delayed its vote to certify South Fork Wind Farm after a five-hour meeting on Tuesday. / SOURCE: R.I. DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT / PBN FILE GRAPHIC/ANNE EWING

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Whether state coastal regulators will sign off on a scaled-back version of the South Fork Wind Farm with a $12 million payout to fishermen remains unclear.

The R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council on Tuesday voted to delay its decision on whether to approve the 132-megawatt wind farm slated for federal waters off the coast of Block Island after more than five hours of impassioned testimony from the project developer and fishing industry representatives. The CRMC is slated to resume the meeting, with an opportunity for public comment, on June 2.

South Fork is being jointly developed by Danish company Orsted A/S and Boston-based Eversource Energy. Once completed, it will supply electricity to Long Island, N.Y.

The CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan gets a say in the federal certification process for wind farm projects within a certain distance of the state coastline. Compensation is intended to offset losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects.

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Exactly what the local fishing industry – including commercial, recreational and charter boats, as well as onshore supporting businesses – is worth, and how much the developer should pay to offset losses due to construction and operation of the wind farm, is at the center of the dispute.

The project certification has already been delayed seven times amid many months and more than 30 meetings of failed negotiations between the CRMC, developers and the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, CRMC Deputy Director Jim Boyd said on Tuesday.

Opposing views were again put on display at the meeting Tuesday, with multiple representatives for each side painting very different pictures of the project through hours of testimony replete with maps, spreadsheets and references to scientific studies.

The latest package put forth by South Fork reduces the number of turbines in the project from 15 to 12 and pays $12 million to the local fishing industry over the 30-year life of the project. The developer has also agreed to set aside another $1 million to pay for local fishermen to participate in training programs and buy equipment to better navigate around turbines for three of its projects: the South Fork, Revolution and Ocean Wind farms.

Robin Main, an attorney with Hinckley Allen & Snyder LLP representing South Fork, said this proposal demonstrates the developer’s flexibility and willingness to work with the CRMC and the fishing industry. 

Tom Sproul, a University of Rhode Island economist who is working as a private consultant to the fishermen’s board, cast this flexibility in a more negative light, pointing to how the developer has reneged on original compensation plans for other projects.

Sproul also questioned the developer’s commitment to taking down the turbines and foundations after the 25-year schedule as planned, noting that Orsted had not set aside any money for this according to its financial statements. Leaving the turbines and equipment up indefinitely would have a “disastrous” impact for the fishing industry and the state economy, he said.

Also in dispute was the science around how the building and operation of these turbines will disrupt the ecological habitat and the wildlife that live there.

The area where the project will be built, known as Cox Ledge, is considered a “crown jewel” for biodiversity and the go-to fishing spot for commercial, charter and recreational fishermen up and down the East Coast, according to a staff report from the CRMC.

But scientific experts for the developer sought to minimize the ecological harm. Melanie Gearon, Orsted’s permitting and environmental affairs manager, said the actual turbine foundations will disturb just 1% of the ecologically sensitive seabed within the project’s leasing area.

Sproul contended that much like pins in a pinball machine, the project’s impact will reverberate through the entire area, not just where the actual turbine foundations are built.

The negotiation process also came under fire, with Marisa Desautel, an attorney for the fishermen’s board, alleging a “backroom deal” between the CRMC and the developers. While the CRMC in its original staff report recommended that the council deny the project unless certain changes were made, including cutting the number of turbines to 11, an update to the staff report posted online Tuesday said that the 12-turbine plan put forth by South Fork would meet coastal requirements.

CRMC Executive Director Jeffrey Willis adamantly denied that any kind of closed-door deal was struck. Boyd, who wrote the staff report, explained that his support for 12 turbines rather than 11 came after he learned that the developer has already entered a contract to use 11-megawatt turbines. Previous proposals suggested the turbines would generate between 6 and 12 megawatts of electricity each. 

The Fishermen’s Advisory Board said it would accept the $12 million if paid upfront, but otherwise urged the council to reject the package put forth by South Fork and deny certification. Meaghan Wims, a spokesperson for Orsted, declined to comment on whether the developer would accept this proposal. 

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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