Bitter Denunciations at Marathon Meeting on Wind Farm

Clint Plummer of Deepwater Wind updated the East Hampton Town Board on his company’s plan to construct an offshore wind farm on Tuesday. Christopher Walsh

Opponents and advocates of the proposed South Fork Wind Farm, a 15-turbine, 90-megawatt installation planned approximately 30 miles east of Montauk, spoke for more than three hours at Tuesday’s meeting of the East Hampton Town Board, as commercial fishermen and their supporters railed at a project they fear would result in making fertile fishing grounds off limits. 

Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island company, is seeking easements from the town and trustees to land the wind farm’s transmission cable at the ocean beach in Wainscott. Deepwater would bury the cable along public roads and the Long Island Rail Road tracks to reach a Long Island Power Authority substation. Tuesday’s presentation was meant to update the board on the package of community benefits the company has proposed and its environmental and permitting assessments. But the meeting was dominated by denunciations from many members of the public and accusations that the board has not adequately vetted its impact on marine life and those who make their living on the waters.

The purpose of the proposed installation is renewable energy for the South Fork that would preclude LIPA’s need for new fossil fuel-derived generation or transmission infrastructure, which the utility determined would be the least expensive of 21 responses to a request for proposals. But more than two hours passed before fossil fuels were implicated and the words “climate change” uttered. When they were, it was a former member of the town’s energy sustainability advisory committee who provided that context, along with a stark warning about what a business-as-usual approach to meeting electricity demand might mean to this coastal community. 

Deepwater Wind needs the easements before it can submit permit applications to the more than 20 federal and state entities involved, which will trigger a review process lasting 18 to 24 months. “We’re very close to being ready to submit our permit applications,” said Aileen Kenney, a Deepwater Wind vice president. Should the company meet its permitting and construction schedule, the wind farm is to begin generating electricity in 2022 and provide power to some 50,000 residences on the South Fork, according to company officials. 

The South Fork Wind Farm, said Clint Plummer, Deepwater Wind’s vice president of development, is the first phase in developing the 256-square-mile site it has leased from the federal government. Tuesday was the 17th public meeting on the wind farm since March 2017, and the project, Mr. Plummer said, has improved based on community feedback. 

He described the horizontal directional drilling process by which a conduit would be laid under the ocean floor, starting some 2,000 feet offshore, and under the beach at the end of Beach Lane in Wainscott, before continuing to the substation. The transmission cable would then be pulled through the conduit to the substation. There would be no construction on the beach itself, Mr. Plummer said. All onshore work would take place after Labor Day and before Memorial Day weekend, with drilling confined to a Nov. 1 to March 31 window and likely limited to 12 hours a day. Burying the conduit along roads and the railroad tracks would be done in 500 to 1,000 feet sections, and roads would be temporarily patched through the summer and repaved in the following season, he said.

Ms. Kenney pointed out that all stakeholders would have opportunity for further comment during the permitting process. She also said that once permits were in place, the company would conduct multiple studies of the site and marine life. On and offshore field studies by third-party entities have already taken place, she said. 

Councilman Jeff Bragman told the Deepwater Wind officials that he was still seeking “a clear idea of the scale” of the project. “This is some major activity going on,” he said, “on a small, pristine beach.” He asked that Deepwater Wind provide details of its drilling methodology, the transmission cable’s capacity, and a more substantial assessment of impacts on the near-shore environment and species that migrate and spawn there.

“Many of us are enthusiastic about wind power,” he said, and therefore inclined to support the project, but he harbored “a serious concern that East Hampton retain control over its destiny. This is a start, but don’t think it’s the end.”

Mr. Bragman “gave us a long list of things to address,” Mr. Plummer said. “We will respond in writing within the next few days. As a general posture on this, we want this dialogue.” 

“This project is being specifically designed to not result in a lack of access for fishing,” Ms. Kenney said, but her statement did nothing to alleviate many ongoing concerns. References to an “industrial complex” in the ocean, suggestions that land-based wind farms would pose fewer uncertainties, fears of higher electricity rates, and concern that the South Fork Wind Farm represents but a fraction of what is to come were voiced over the next hour. 

“There is no amount of research that you’ve done that I would ever consider adequate,” Alice Wainwright said. “There is no amount of community benefits that could equal the incredible resource we have,” she said, referring to the ocean and beaches. 

“As a commercial fisherman, we are looking at the industrialization of our oceans,” said Dan Farnham Jr. of Montauk, referring to the hundreds or even thousands of turbines he expects to follow the South Fork Wind Farm. Information he has sought from Deepwater Wind since December has not been provided, he said, nor has his request to be taken on a trawl survey been honored. The trawl nets of Rhode Island fishermen, he said, have snagged on the concrete mattresses covering sections of the cables serving the Block Island Wind Farm, the nation’s first offshore wind installation, which was constructed and is operated by Deepwater Wind. 

The easement the town would grant Deepwater Wind “is our last bargaining chip,” Mr. Farnham said. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the lead permitting agency, could not be expected to apply the same rigorous community standards as the board would, he said. 

Bob Valenti of the town’s fisheries advisory committee complained that Deepwater Wind has yet to sit down with Julie Evans, whom the committee selected last month as its representative, and he suggested that the board was rushing its review. Damage to fisheries and higher electricity bills may negate the community benefits package, he said. 

But proponents of offshore wind were also outspoken, with one saying opponents should see it in a larger context. Renewable energy projects have “to be weighed against what would happen if we don’t do that project,” said Gordian Raacke of the advocacy group Renewable Energy Long Island. If the town is to rely on transmission of electricity from UpIsland, “that would mean we continue to emit greenhouse gases, continue to emit air pollution. That makes people sick, it leads to premature fatalities, it leads to climate change. We have waited for far too long,” he said, adding that anthropogenic climate change has been understood since the 1950s. Regarding efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, he said, “We have delayed and delayed, again and again.”  

Mr. Raacke, a former member of the town’s energy sustainability committee, recalled a 1999 study published jointly by the Pace Law School Energy Project and the Citizens Advisory Panel in which he and his co-authors estimated the potential of renewable energy technologies and recommended that LIPA initiate a wind resource assessment. LIPA had commissioned a study that found significant offshore wind potential off the Atlantic coast, but the utility’s intention to build a wind farm off Jones Beach, announced in 2002, was ultimately canceled. 

“Here we are, it’s about 20 years later,” Mr. Raacke said. “The Europeans have constructed offshore wind for the last 25 years,” with close to 4,000 turbines operating today, he said. “They’re serious about implementing solutions to climate change. . . . We’ve got to realize, when we say ‘let’s delay, pause, consider more,’ after 20 years or so it may be time to move forward. Nature does not negotiate timelines or deadlines. Nature just keeps going.” 

The town could negotiate a community benefits package with Deepwater Wind, Mr. Raacke said, but “the big community benefits package that we’ll be getting is that we’ll have clean air, a healthy climate, and we’ll begin the transition that’s been overdue for many, many decades now, from dirty, dangerous fossil fuel and nuclear energy.” 

But Dan Farnham Sr., who like his son is a Montauk fisherman, said, “We all want to have alternative energy sources, renewable sources, but we don’t want to be thrown underneath the bus for the benefit of the rest of the country or community.” He said that in waters off Europe trawl fishing between wind turbines is either prohibited or too dangerous. 

“We really appreciate the effort the town board is taking,” the senior Mr. Farnham said, “but I want to emphasize, we are setting a precedent here.”