Delaying Cape Wind while hastening its own demise

Cape Cod Commission applies vigorous standard for Cape Wind - and none at all for Nantucket Electric 

Attend a few hearings of the Cape Cod Commission and listen to its planners and commissioners, and you may well come away with the impression that they are reasonable, intelligent and well-intentioned public servants.

Dig a little deeper and you may conclude otherwise. 

Exhibit A: The commission's 12-0 vote to deny Cape Wind's application as a Development of Regional Impact (DRI).

When Cape Wind appeals the decision, either to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board that  in May 2005 approved Cape Wind's application to connect to the regional grid, or in court, the company will likely prevail. Why? Because of an elephant-in-the-room double standard that even Cape Wind's most vociferous critics can't deny.

"The similarities between the two projects are striking."
  -  Cape Wind David Rosenzweig, comparing tranmission lines of Nantucket Electric and the proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.
Faced with a remarkably similar submarine and underground transmission line project from Nantucket to Hyannis in 2004, the commission chose not to exercise its juridiction and scrutinize the proposal. As described by Cape Wind attorney David Rosenzweig, "the similarities between the two projects are striking."

The Nantucket Electric cable, Rosenzweig told commissioners before their Oct. 18 vote, "was laid through Lewis Bay, its landfall (at Kalmus Beach in Hyannis) in proximity to Cape Wind's proposed landfall (at New Hampshire Avenue in Yarmouth), proceeds under public ways in Barnstable and connects to the same Barnstable switching station."

Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound attorney Patrick Butler countered by pointing out dissimilarities between the projects. "The Nantucket Electric cable project did not involve an Environmental Impact Report at the MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) level," Butler said. "It was filed as an Environmental Notification Form and, as such, the Cape Cod Commission did not have mandatory jurisdiction and did not exercise its discretionary jurisdiction."

All of which is true - but what Butler neglected to mention is that in not exercising its "discretionary jurisdiction" (and it was a red herring for Butler to imply that anyone claimed the commission had "mandatory jurisdiction"), the commission recommended to the state MEPA office that the Nantucket cable project not require an Environmental Impact Report.

In other words, the different permitting regimes for the two projects resulted in no small part from the commission recommending less scrutiny for the Nantucket cable.

No significant impact, except to eel grass 

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The path of the Nantucket cable rips through q thousand feet of Eel Grass before crossing Kalamus Beach in Hyannis. To see this map full size or scroll to bottom of this page.
Butler also told the commission that the Nantucket cable "did not create a potential of significant impacts to regional resources in the fashion that this project (Cape Wind) does."

But what Butler again neglected to mention is that unlike Cape Wind, the Nantucket cable project does not involve significant benefits to the region in the fashion that Cape Wind does - including abundant electricity without pollution or greenhouse gas emissions while reducing our dependence on foreign oil in an era of $90-per-barrel petroleum. Nor would Cape Wind require millions of gallons of water daily to cool its turbines, as do fossil fuel- and nuclear power plants.

 In concluding his remarks to the commission, Butler said that "most importantly, that project (the Nantucket cable) was determined to be water-dependent, whereas as noted in the findings of the draft decision before you, this (Cape Wind) is a non water-dependent use."

Just a hunch, but we'd venture to say that an offshore wind farm with a submarine transmission line stretching several miles to shore is a water-dependent use - especially compared to a project lacking an offshore counterpart.

When the Nantucket cable was placed, using the same jetplow technology planned by Cape Wind, it passed through an eelgrass bed before landfall in Hyannis (as shown on the maps accompanying this editorial). Commissioners specifically cited potential impacts to eelgrass beds as one of their concerns about Cape Wind's two transmission lines - neither of which would pass through eelgrass beds.

Another example of the commission's capriciousness - the agency sought information about pumping of water from concrete vaults to be placed below grade at the cables' landfall at New Hampshire Avenue in Yarmouth.

Cape Wind stated it would use a so-called frac tank and pumping system "to maintain the excavated area for safe working conditions."

"Excess water from the trench would be pumped into the frac tank where the water would be filtered so that sediment-free water leaves the tank," Rosenzweig wrote in his Oct. 16 letter. ""The tank and tank's discharge hose will be placed such that the water flows through a line of haybales. This dewatering and discharge method is generally recognized in the industry as a BMP (Best Management Practice) for protecting water quality.

"The amount of groundwater pumped is dependent on the time of construction, amount of rainfall, and ultimately the groundwater level during the construction period," Rosenzweig added. "Thus, it is not possible to define the amount of groundwater to be encountered until construction" - any more than it would now be possible to forecast the weather during construction.

"In any event," Rosenzweig added, "the discharge of groundwater will not affect water quality. Despite Cape Wind's determination that such a calculation is not possible, the commission has insisted that it is and found that Cape Wind should have provided this information" and a second extension for future review.   

Another example of how the commission's decision is suspect - to ensure that Cape Wind's cable work along roads in Yarmouth and Barnstable would did not harm local water, the commission requested that Cape Wind set aside $30,000 for water quality testing.

But as Rosenzweig noted in the Oct. 16 letter, "in excess of $10 million has been set aside by Cape Wind to address mitigation and to provide additional public benefits for its project. Among these funds is $4.22 million to be directed specifically toward natural resource preservation, marine habitat restoration and coastal recreation enhancement projects on the Cape."

Further, Rosenzweig wrote, Cape Wind would pay "in excess of $250,000 annually escalated by inflation over the project's life, for impacts relating to the transmission lines in Yarmouth."

"When specifically queried by the commission staff, a representative from the town of Yarmouth indicated that the mitigation provided for in the town's host community agreement with Cape Wind was sufficient and that no further funds were required for this water quality testing of affected ponds," Rosenzweig wrote. "Regardless, the commission has found, with no factual support for the notion that there will be impacts to the water resources or the actual cost of the water testing it seeks (emphasis added), that Cape Wind must make a monetary contribution of $30,000 for water quality testing of those resources."

"Monetary contribution" is one way of describing it. Citizens of ancient Rome would have recognized it by another name - tribute, as in money changing hands from commoner to overlord.  For those more cynical about such matters, the word extortion may come to mind, but this is perhaps too harsh. Members of the commission are more likely misinformed than corrupt.

The likely outcome of the commission's ruling? The state Energy Facilities Siting Board will overturn its decision, a piqued commission will file suit against the state, much taxpayer-money will be wasted in the ensuing litigation and, in the end, the earlier siting board decision will prevail - as with the commission's denial of a KeySpan project overturned by the siting board last year.

Ironically, the commission's actions may hasten its demise as a relic of command economies of the past and do little more than delay Cape Wind's eventual role as exemplar of an energy-sustainable future.

Jack Coleman, capecodtoday.com
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