While the public debate over the South Fork Wind Farm cable landing in Wainscott has shifted to court filings and the village incorporation effort, the public stage of the federal application for the wind farm itself is just getting started — and advocates for local fishermen say that the most important aspects of the project have yet to be settled.
Whether turbine foundations will be hammered into the heart of one of the most fabled fishing regions off Montauk and whether commercial fishermen will be compensated for lost fishing time or damaged fishing gear are both still up in the air as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and a dozen other federal agencies continue their examination of the project as proposed by Danish wind farm developer Ørsted and it’s American domestic partner, Eversource.
The federal regulators on Tuesday held the first of three public comment sessions on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the 800-plus-page main outline of the project and the various considerations for its design. The will be additional comment sessions on February 11 and 16. The meetings are being held via Zoom and registration and the full details of the project are available at www.boem.gov/renewable-energy/south-fork-wind-farm-virtual-meetings.
Ørsted officials said this week that the current timeline would have the South Fork Wind Farm’s federal and state permitting completed by this time next year and the first stages of construction on land in East Hampton to be underway in February 2022. They believe that electricity will begin flowing from the turbines in December 2023 — making the South Fork Wind Farm the first, but by far the smallest, of the bevy of offshore wind energy projects currently in the planning.
Fishermen say there is a lot that is needed between now and then if the impacts from the wind farms are going to be minimized.
“While you did give approval to the … transmission cable, nothing has been done for the fishing industry,” commercial fishermen’s advocate Bonnie Brady told the Town Board on Tuesday. “We still don’t have any type of mitigation or compensation package … Without a true, fair compensation package — like they do for their own fishermen in their own country, in the case of Ørsted in Denmark as part of Danish fisheries law — you will be watching local town of East Hampton fishermen left out to dry.”
Rhode Island fishermen have also been wrestling with Ørsted over compensation agreements and Councilman Jeff Bragman said on Tuesday that he was dejected to read that those talks had reportedly hit an impasse.
Ørsted representative Jennifer Garvey said the company is working with fishermen on a compensation plan, but would offer no pledges of what an agreement would entail. Ms. Brady told town officials that the company has made only narrow offers of compensation for gear loss under very specific circumstances and only with extensive requirements upon fishermen to show that wind farm equipment caused the conflict.
Ørsted has touted its shifting of its plans to put more distance between each turbines — increasing the proposed spacing from three-quarters of a mile to 1 mile —to allow fishing boats easier navigation through the wind farms. But the shift could cause other problems with the siting of the turbines that recreational fishermen and environmentalists have said are of concern.
Members of the East Hampton Town Trustees have already played an outsized role in the nudging of the federal review on matters they say are important for protecting the habitat that recreational and commercial fishing boats from Montauk rely on in the Cox Ledge region, about 30 miles southeast of Montauk.
Along with having forced through guarantees for the cable to be buried deeper under the sea floor and extending farther from the erosive surf zone, the Trustees — Trustee Rick Drew, in particular, has been applauded by his colleagues for his advocacy — have been instrumental in the introduction of a proposed demand on the siting of the turbines near Cox Ledge so that they have the least possible impact on the rocky slopes of the ledge’s shallowest area, where important recreational fishing species like cod and black sea bass congregate and spawn.
“The Fisheries Habitat Impact Minimization alternative is the only and best option that will protect critical fish habitat,” Mila Buckner, an attorney for the Town Trustees, said during Tuesday’s BOEM hearing of the alternative requirement that has been pressed by the Trustees that would require turbines be moved away from critical habitat.
She added that the federal agency should engage in “micro-siting” of the turbines to pick specific locations that minimize the damage to productive fish habitat. She also asked that the federal regulators demand the company use the largest turbines available to it when construction commences, so as to reduce the total number of turbines that will need to be placed within “complex” regions of the seafloor that are important fish habitat.
”If we could use bigger turbines, in fewer number, that would greatly reduce the impacts,” she said.
In a conversation on Monday, the head of siting and permitting for Eversource, Ken Bowes, said that BOEM has already suggested to the company that it move to a larger turbine size than the 6 megawatt turbines the project had originally been designed to employ. The company has already said it expects to be able to field 9 megawatt turbines, which led to an expansion of the forecast official output of the wind farm from 90 megawatts to 130 megawatts and there are now companies producing offshore turbines capable of up to 12 megawatts of output each, though Mr. Bowes said it’s not known what will be available for deliver in the time frame of the SFWF construction window.
The project officially asks for up to 15 turbines and a 16th foundation for the offshore power substation that will consolidate the power and send it through the 50 mile cable to shore in Wainscott.
The South Fork Wind Farm’s turbines — however many there end up being —will soon be but a nipple on the two much larger wind farm projects that Ørsted has planned for the ocean surrounding it, each of which could add another 100 turbines or more to the ocean floor.
But the SFWF is situated on the edge of the prime fish habitat on the upper rim of Cox Ledge and siting those of the utmost importance to fishermen and conservationists, according to Mr. Drew, the Town Trustee who has led the town’s advocacy to the federal regulators.
“They subdivided their lease area and artificially constricted themselves leaving only this little portion of bottom and now can’t properly site these turbines without going up onto the ledge,” Mr. Drew said in a recent conversation of Ørsted’s apportioning of its sectors of leased sea floor to the various projects it has proposed to New York and other states. “Some of them are right into the face of the ledge. With the Block Island project they did it right … they put it out in sandy bottom and, quite frankly, it’s been good for fishermen because it has created structure where there wasn’t any. But you don’t replace complex structural bottomland with manmade structure. So we are really trying to develop a consensus for this alternative D, which requires 500 feet from complex habitat for the turbine site.”
Fishermen were not the only ones to voice concerns about the project in the first round of comments.
Bird experts have worried about the impact of turbines on migrating birds like terns and red knots. Cameras that could keep track of the number of birds killed by turbine blades and better surveys of nocturnal bird movements would help minimize the impacts, one commenter suggested at Tuesday’s meeting, as would financial dedications to improving bird reproduction elsewhere that might offset some losses of birds to the turbine blades. Most helpful might be a order for the turbines to be halted for periods during times of migrations.