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Vineyard Wind Gets Federal OK for Unintended Harm to Marine Animals

A lift boat and wind turbines off Block Island, R.I. in 2016. Approval of the country's first large scale wind farm off Martha's Vineyard signals a major shift in the clean energy landscape.
A lift boat and wind turbines off Block Island, R.I. in 2016. Approval of the country's first large scale wind farm off Martha's Vineyard signals a major shift in the clean energy landscape.

Vineyard Wind has received a critical federal authorization to build its offshore wind farm 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded the company an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA), effectively allowing for unintentional harm to marine mammals during the construction period from May 2023 through April 2024.

“Take of marine mammals may occur incidental to the construction of the project due to inwater noise exposure resulting from pile driving activities associated with installation of wind turbine generators and electrical service platform foundations,” the authorization said. However, it added: “Neither Vineyard Wind nor the National Marine Fisheries Service expects serious injury or mortality to result from this activity and, therefore, an IHA is appropriate.”

But conservationists warn of glaring potential consequences of the authorization, issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“It allows for a moderate level of harassment of right whales,” said Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the conservation group Oceana.

Today, there are only about 360 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the vast majority spend time in waters off Cape Cod from late winter through early spring.

“Everyone wants to have clean power and renewable offshore energy can be a significant step,” Brogan said. “And at the same time we share a concern about the whales, so we’re trying to balance those two interests.”

This month, federal officials instituted a 10-knot slow zone for boats until July 18 for an area southwest of Martha’s Vineyard, while some of the critically endangered whales are passing through.

Vineyard Wind, which first filed its request for an IHA on Sept. 7, 2018, has said that construction of the 800-megawatt offshore wind farm will generate clean, renewable, affordable energy for over 400,000 homes and businesses across Massachusetts, reducing carbon emissions by over 1.68 million metric tons per year. Yet conservationists say questions remain about whether right whales will be in harm’s way if they’re found to be feeding here year-round.

“There should be a lot more advanced surveys of the area before this all moves forward,” Brogan said. “If the area is as important as we think it is, then that needs to be seriously considered.”

By 2023, when the NOAA authorization becomes valid, more will be known about how, when, and where right whales are using the area, but by then it could be too late, Brogan said.

A representative for Vineyard Wind did not respond to a request for comment. But in its request for an IHA, Vineyard Wind stated that the $2.8 billion project will consist of up to 100 offshore wind turbine generators and one or more electrical service platforms, an onshore substation, offshore and onshore cabling, and onshore operations and maintenance facilities.

For their part, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association issued a statement saying it’s “no easy feat” to receive an Incidental Harassment Authorization.

“The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association respects the federal government’s process on issuing an Incidental Harassment Authorization,” wrote executive director Beth Casoni in an email. “These [IHAs] are not given freely without great concern to detail for the conservation of protected species.”

Vineyard Wind received its final key approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in May, after the agency completed a final environmental review of the project.