East Hampton Sees Unanswered Questions About Impacts Of Wind Farm

The steel foundations of offshore wind turbines can create good habitat for fish in an area without complex bottom structure. But fishermen worry that they could also cause immense harm if placed in areas that are already good fish habitat conditions.

East Hampton Town officials spotlighted a number of lingering unknowns about the plans for the construction of the South Fork Wind Farm that they said were of concern locally — including whether consideration of much larger turbines would make the wind farm visible from the shores of Montauk, some 35 miles away.

As the town prepares to offer its comments to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is holding public hearings on the proposal, staff said that town and local fishermen still have concerns about some of the details that have not yet been detailed and that how a variety of options being considered are applied could be critical in minimizing the impacts of the wind farm.

Brian Frank, the town’s chief planner, highlighted for board members the remaining details of the wind farm, particularly issues regarding the exact locations the turbines would be erected and the power transmission cables laid between them, which members of the Town Trustees and fishing advocates have said are critical considerations in protecting important fish habitat.

Mr. Frank noted that while the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the main outline of the more than $1 billion project, includes alternatives to the plan that would demand a broader travel lane for boats passing through the turbine area or that would force turbines to be constructed away from important fish habitat, the plan does explain what the potential impacts those changes would have on the electrical production of the project and whether they would be feasible while still meeting power supply demands.

Concerns for avoiding construction on the important fishing grounds at Cox Ledge, an undersea slope about 20 miles south of Block Island, is competing with calls from commercial fishermen that the turbines be spaced farther apart and that a 4-mile-wide transit lane be left through the entire wind lease area, which is expected to someday be carpeted with hundreds of turbines.

The developers — Danish wind farm developer Ørsted and it’s American domestic partner, Eversource — had originally proposed spacing the turbines about three-quarters of a mile apart, but expanded the spacing of the grid to 1 nautical mile at the request of commercial fishermen who said the extra space would allow them to pull their long nets among the turbines. But the extra spacing expanded the footprint of the project, while at the same time Ørsted has restricted the wind farm to a smaller portion of the ocean as it lays out plans for two other much larger development projects — each with as many as 100 turbines or more — it has proposed to New York State. Fishing advocates have expressed frustration that the developers have artificially limited the options for siting the turbines of the South Fork Wind Farm away from important undersea habitat through it’s own planning.

“The area has tightened up and one of the points of discussion … is whether that tightening limited the flexibility of the siting,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said during Tuesday’s work session.

The main criticisms offered to BOEM during its three virtual hearings on the proposal, have focused on the habitat impacts, the hazards the project may pose to commercial fishermen and vessels that must sail through or near the wind farms and the dangers that noise, electromagnetic emissions and the spinning turbines might impose on fish, whales and birds whose historic migrations patterns pass through the hundreds of square miles of ocean that have been designated by BOEM as future wind energy areas.

Town Councilman David Lys said that he also thinks the town should insist on a broadened visual impact study for the wind farm to ensure that Hamptons residents know how much of it will be visible despite its distance from the shore. Mr. Lys said that the proposed use of much larger turbines than were planned for in the initial project plan could mean that components of the wind farm could be potentially be visible from Montauk.

Mr. Lys said that the largest turbines that could be used, which tower some 830 feet tall, could be visible and that the visual impact study for this project should show how visible those would be on the horizon from Montauk. He also said the study should encompass the entire proposed wind lease area, not just the South Fork Wind Farm, because of the potential for the hundreds of turbines surrounding the 15 of the wind farm to also be visible from Montauk.

Mr. Lys also related the concerns of the town’s Fisheries Advisory Committee has said there a number of points still outstanding that are critical for minimizing impacts on fishermen from Montauk and elsewhere —including a much talked-about but still unrealized mitigation and compensation agreement between the developers and fishermen that would ensure fishermen were protected against losses in fishing areas because of the construction of the turbines or damage to commercial fishing gear that gets tangled on the undersea cables in places where they cannot are buried.

Talks between the gargantuan energy companies proposing the project and representatives of the small commercial fishing boat owners who work the waters south of New England have repeatedly hit snags and fishermen have said that if BOEM does not insist that a complete compensation and mitigation plan is included in the project’s environmental impact statement that it will never be realized.

“The FAC’s position is that the compensation and mitigation plan is the foundation of everything moving forward and that has not been addressed in the DEIS,” Mr. Lys said.