BOSTON - A plan to build the nation's first offshore wind farm cleared a key hurdle Friday, winning state approval of an environmental report submitted by the project's developers.
Cape Wind Associates hopes to build 130 windmills over 25 miles of federal waters in Nantucket Sound, off the Massachusetts coast. The turbines would reach heights as high as 440 feet above sea level when the tallest blade is pointing straight up, a concern for some opponents.
Ian Bowles, the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, approved the report in a ruling announced Friday, saying it complies with state environmental laws.
"Overall the Cape Wind project will contribute to the long-term preservation and enhancement of our environment," Bowles said.
The project still needs to clear federal regulatory hurdles before it can move forward. Cape Wind Associates - a subsidiary of the New England power company Energy Management Inc. - has touted its project as a safe, clean way to create renewable energy, a safer environment and new jobs.
But opponents fear the wind farm could hurt Cape Cod's tourism and fishing industries. They warn the turbines would pose navigational and radar hazards, as well as a threat to birds. They said the report also ignored the possibility of finding an alternative site. Other critics say the turbines could hurt the views of some multimillion-dollar oceanfront homes. "This wrong-headed decision will threaten fishermen, tourists, and residents, place public safety in jeopardy, and endanger the marine environment of Nantucket Sound," Jim Powers, a spokesman for Save Our Sound, an alliance of groups opposed to the project, said in a statement. Cape Wind President Jim Gordon said the decision is good news not just for his company, but for the state. "This certificate is a very strong statement on the future of Cape Wind and of wind power in the United States," he said. "This sends a message that Massachusetts is serious about renewable energy." Gordon declined to say how much it would cost to build the project, but said $30 million has been spent so far on design and planning. If built, the project would be able to supply on average 79 percent of the Cape and Island's electricity demands, he said. The state portion of the environmental review was limited to the potential impact of underwater cables that would run from the turbines to the shore. The turbines themselves are in federal waters and subject to a separate federal environmental review. As part of the environmental package, Cape Wind agreed to a $10 million mitigation package. The plan includes $780,000 for the restoration of Bird Island, a prime nesting habitat for terns, $4.2 million for natural resource and marine habitat restoration, and $5.6 million in federal lease payments over 20 years. The project has also drawn criticism from commercial fishermen, cruise lines, wildlife advocates and Cape Cod representatives. "We're privatizing 24 square miles of public ocean," said state Rep. Robert D. O'Leary, D-Barnstable. "The state has narrowed their jurisdiction down to the wire that comes off of this project and in the process have abdicated their responsibility." Environmental groups hailed the decision. Conservation Law Foundation President Phil Warburg said projects like Cape Wind are key to "our effort to combat climate change and lessen our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels." Critics, though, have said the added height will mean the turbines can be seen more clearly from towns such as Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, creating an eyesore on the pristine Cape Cod coast. Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose family's Hyannis Port compound would have a clear view of the farm, opposes it, citing risks to fishing, navigation, aviation and the sanctuary of Nantucket Sound. Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said, "Sen. Kennedy hopes those (federal) agencies will give serious consideration to the safety, maritime, environmental and economic concerns raised by the Cape Wind proposal." Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has pledged to boost the state as a center for alternative energy, supports the project and says the state needs to invest in environmentally friendly energy technology. In a statement Friday, he called Cape Wind "an important symbol of our commitment to clean energy." The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that will decide the farm's fate, is expected to release a draft report on the project's environmental impact this year. After public comment, the agency is expected to make a final decision in early 2008. AP-CS-03-30-07 1542EDT