Concern from the fishing industry is the latest development in the escalating debate over offshore wind farms near Ocean City.
Representatives say wind farms could cause harm by driving marine wildlife away, disturbing the ocean environment and making navigation more difficult for fishers and mariners.
"Now with the current offshore wind leasing process, we have these fishing grounds being sold right out from under us," said Meghan Lapp during a recent presentation to the Ocean City Town Council. Lapp is a fishing liaison for Seafreeze Ltd., a Rhode Island commercial fishing company.
But marine biologists and wind farm officials say the impact won't be that severe.
“I think they took an emotional approach to the problem. … So there was some degree of misinformation,” said Salvo Vitale, general counsel for U.S. Wind, one of the offshore wind energy companies involved in the Maryland project.
Conflicting information has muddied many discussions surrounding offshore wind energy. This back and forth pattern of counter arguments has persisted throughout the history of the project.
The bill pitted the town of Ocean City against a coalition of manufacturers, labor unions and environmental advocates. Wochit video by Keith Demko
The effects on tourism have been one of the primary debates. A study by U.S. Wind concluded that local tourism would not be significantly impacted by the sight of turbines along Ocean City's horizon. But another study by North Carolina State University, and often cited by town officials, suggested otherwise.
On a recent weekday, 10 tourists on the Boardwalk from a variety East Coast locations were indifferent about the possibilities of seeing wind turbines off the coast and some admitted little knowledge of the proposed project.
Due to contentious issues surrounding the offshore wind project, Ocean City's Town Council hopes the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is in charge of regulating the project, will conduct further research on the wind farms' impact.
A project of this magnitude needs to be done right, Mayor Rick Meehan said.
The council members have said they support green energy, but they don't want the wind turbines to ruin the horizon.
The current plan from U.S. Wind includes about 62 wind turbines located offshore roughly 17 nautical miles, which are slightly longer than regular miles.The farm would spread across 80,000 acres of water, making it the largest offshore wind energy project in the United States.
Deepwater Wind is developing the Skipjack wind farm, a smaller project with 15 turbines about 19 miles off the coast of the Maryland/Delaware line and 26 miles away from the Ocean City pier.
The process started in 2010 when BOEM gauged public interest in offshore wind farms. Over the years, the federal agency has frequently held meetings and asked for public comment. BOEM also formed an intergovernmental renewable energy task force to work with local and state officials on the project.
The Town became vocal against the project over a year ago when the renderings showed the size of turbines that would be visible from the beach.
But since the wind farms would be located in federal waters, final decisions will be made by federal and state agencies, not Ocean City.
U.S. Wind is trying to work with the town and other stakeholders to compromise and find solutions to their concerns, Vitale said.
“We are more than willing to work with Ocean City and the fishing industry,” Vitale said. U.S. Wind did move the turbines back five miles after hearing the town's original concerns.
The town council and the wind farms companies have not yet addressed the concerns of the fishing industry that were discussed during Monday night’s meeting, Meehan said.
While the wind energy companies want to move forward, Meehan and the town council are worried that the project will continue without additional assessment of possible impacts.
"It is our hope that additional studies and time will be taken in order to resolve those concerns," Meehan said.
The debate of fishing impact
The developer-funded analysis seeks to allay concerns that views of the wind turbines will sour tourists on visiting Ocean City. Video by Jeremy Cox
In the past, fishing industry representatives say their voices on the wind farms issue have rarely been heard. At Monday’s town council meeting, Lapp and three local fishermen gave a presentation about their concerns with wind farms.
Lapp said fishing industry revenue could suffer because wind farms will cause the fish to leave.
But that scenario is highly unlikely, said Andy Read, chair of the Marine Sciences & Conservation Division at Duke University and director of Duke's Marine Lab.
Fish like structures, and wind turbines act like artificial reefs, giving marine wildlife more habitat, said Read, who has been a professor at Duke for about 23 years and specializes in how human activities affect marine wildlife.
It is likely the fish will go away temporarily due to the construction, Read said, but they'll come back and attract other species as well. Off the coast of North Carolina, there are light towers built by the Navy during World War II that are similar structures to wind turbines, and they are boons to local fishermen, he said.
More: Ocean City offshore wind project won't deter tourists, developer says
"There are a lot of charter boats that take their clients to fish out around those light towers because there's a lot of Amberjacks, sharks and other fish that people value out there," Read said.
Lapp’s findings didn’t align with this, though, as she claimed fish prefer sand bottom environments to reef bottom environments.
Another point Lapp introduced involved whales becoming confused because of the sound emanating from wind turbines, which would interfere with their sonar navigation.
But Read said that outcome is unlikely. Whales produce very intense sound bursts that bounce off their surroundings. The sound from wind turbines is so minimal, he said it will not interfere with whales.
“Those animals, you know, it's not like they're going to run into one of those turbines,” Read said. “They're pretty good at navigating around those things.”
If these concerns are valid, it may be another example that will help Ocean City bring attention to a possible re-evaluation of the project and its location to the town's desired 26 miles offshore location.
That distance renders the turbines nearly unseen from the beach, but likely requires the project to start over as the wind farms' location exits the leasing area designated by BOEM — potentially undoing nearly a decade of collaboration between federal and state agencies and local stakeholders.
“We believe that if (the wind energy companies) had started that a year ago and first brought that up, they would be much closer to that becoming a reality sooner,” Meehan said.
"This issue is not for sale"
Ocean City has garnered support from Congressman Andy Harris, who represents the Shore.
Harris has worked on a federal level to draw attention to how these wind farms could affect the community.
The town’s officials feel very strongly that this project was misrepresented to them because the size of the wind turbines has increased since the initial proposal, he said. The Maryland Public Service Commission may choose to rehear Ocean City’s case due to these material changes, he said.
Another political figure who has been instrumental in assisting Ocean City with the wind farms issue is Bruce Bereano, the second highest paid lobbyist in Maryland.
During the last six-month reporting period, Bereano was paid more than $1.9 million to lobby for 70 different clients. Ocean City was one of Bereano’s Top 10 highest paying clients, giving him $65,000 a year to lobby on this single issue, while also reimbursing him almost $1,500 for meals and travel.
The Rev. Gregg Knepp took issue with the Ocean City council not taking public comment before its vote to oppose an offshore wind farm.
The Town Council decided to enlist the help of Bereano because he is a well-known lobbyist on both the state and federal levels, Meehan said. Lobbying has been a positive move on the council’s part, he said.
“I thought that it would be important for us to have someone assist us as we navigate through that process, and I think Bruce was the right person to do that,” Meehan said. “I think he's been very helpful in gaining access to different individuals and trying to get our point across as this moves forward.”
Bereano said he has been talking to a wide variety of people, including government officials on the local, state and federal levels and business groups. The lobbyist was also in attendance during Monday’s council meeting. Overall, he said, the responses he has received from these conversations have been positive and educational.
The only issue has been with U.S. Wind, Bereano said. He feels the company has been "very cocky" during this whole process that “they’re going to prevail,” he said.
He added that town officials found it offensive when U.S. Wind offered Ocean City free or discounted electricity from the wind turbines.
For the free or discounted electricity offer to be taken a bribe was not the intention of U.S. Wind, Vitale said. He added that the offer was an attempt to share the benefits of the potential wind energy with the town.
“This issue is not for sale,” Bereano said. “Ocean City, the mayor and the council are not for sale. They’re not going to be bought off.”
The next steps are ensuring all the concerns from the issue’s stakeholders, especially the local fishing industry, are heard and solutions or compromises can be made, Vitale said.
It is possible for the wind farms and the fishermen to coexist, he said, but it will take continued open dialogue.
If the plan stays on course, the tentative date for the wind turbine installation would be January 2021, according to U.S. Wind. But every project is unique, said Stephen Boutwell, public affairs officer for BOEM, so the timeline may fluctuate.
The project is currently in the site assessment phase, Boutwell said. What will follow is the construction and operations plan by the project's developers.
"That's where you really get into the meat of the project," Boutwell said.
Part of the construction and operations plan includes visual simulations of what the wind farms will look like to give BOEM and local stakeholders an idea of what to expect, Boutwell said. The visuals will include the number of turbines, the turbine height and placement of the turbines throughout the project's zone.
Additional review and opportunities for public comment will follow the plan's release, he said, so that it can be adapted according to the feedback that is received.
Ocean City's mayor underlined the importance of taking the time to get this project right.
“This proposal is for wind farms that could be off our coast for 20 or 30 years, maybe even longer,” Meehan said. “Before we do this, let's look at it all — let's address all the concerns so that we take advantage of the opportunity to get this right.”