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BOEM Hears from Public on Offshore Wind Project

WIND FARM FILE PHOTO.png

By Vince Conti

WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) kicked off the first of three scheduled public hearings July 14, seeking comment concerning BOEM’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the Ocean Wind I project.  

A planned wind farm off the coast of south Jersey, Ocean Wind I is close to final approval for construction. 

Ocean Wind I is the largest offshore wind energy project ever attempted in the U.S. It is comprised of an industrial-level wind farm of 98 turbines and three substations located 15 miles off the coast of Atlantic City on the outer continental shelf.  

The proposal calls for the farm to produce 1,100 megawatts (MW) of energy, which will be brought onshore in two locations, one of them currently being Ocean City. The transmission cables will then run to the decommissioned B.L. England generating station in Beesley’s Point, in Upper Township, for connection to the electric grid.

The project has been controversial since its inception but has gained in visibility as potential construction approaches.  

One of the last major remaining hurdles to the Ocean Wind I project is the need for an approved DEIS. At the end of June, BOEM posted a 1,400page draft document and opened the 45-day public comment period. As of the July 14 virtual public hearing, the closing date for public comment is Aug. 8. 

Public Hearing July 14 

The July 14 hearing had 173 individuals registered, with 157 online when the hearing began. Forty-five people indicated in advance that they wished to make public comment. A question-and-answer board in the virtual meeting space also allowed individuals to post written questions as the hearing went on. Twenty-six individuals elected to post questions. 

The meeting began with a brief overview of the project. BOEM personnel spoke of 28 federal leases for offshore wind projects off the nation’s East Coast, lending added weight to the Ocean Wind I process.  

As the first of the large-scale offshore wind farms, Ocean Wind I will set precedents that will be important in the approval process related to the other leased sites.  

Although other sites will have differences in environmental characteristics, there is a strong likelihood that the decisions made for Ocean Wind I will carry over to the Ocean Wind II project that is already making its way through the early approval process.  

Ocean Wind II will carry the wind turbines further south off more of Cape May County’s coast. 

Public Comment 

The public comment at the July 14 virtual meeting took up most of the time of the four-hour event. There were several broad categories of comment. 

Several residents and property owners from Ocean City, Upper Township and Sea Isle City offered opinions that broke into two camps. Almost all who spoke from Upper Township welcomed the Ocean Wind project, with special emphasis on the potential economic benefits to the area around the closed B.L. England plant.  

One voice from Upper Township was Councilwoman Kimberly Hayes, who used the public comment forum to urge Ocean Wind I LLC to agree to a change in the location of the substation to be built near the old plant. 

Those who spoke from the vantage point of island homesteads in Ocean City or Sea Isle City generally opposed the project, raising concerns about the aesthetics of the large turbines visible from the shore, citing potential damage to marine life and specifically taking exception to Ocean Wind I’s plan to onshore its high voltage transmission lines under the 34th Street beach and through the city streets on its way to Upper Township. 

Many union members who spoke in favor of the project did not reference the DEIS directly, but rather spoke in terms of the commitment from Ocean Wind LLC to use union labor and pay union wages.  

Union officials representing carpenters, brick layers, pile drivers and other trades praised the project and urged BOEM to move expeditiously toward construction. 

Others who spoke, especially several individuals from Clean Ocean Action, a nonprofit, took a much more conservative approach, urging BOEM to establish a pilot project before embarking on what was frequently referred to throughout the hearing as an “industrial scale” wind farm. Their concern was that not enough was known about the potential impact of a sizable wind farm on the ocean environment. 

For everyone who urged speedy action, there were others who argued that the project was moving too fast to meet what some called political goals. 

Many among the speakers at the hearing urged a longer response time for comments. They pointed to the 1,400-page DEIS and the fact that these hearings were being held with only three weeks remaining in the comment period. 

Adding to the sense of a quickening pace was the fact that the hearings are also serving as the public input for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who must make decisions on federal permits for several aspects of the proposed project. Both federal agencies were providing a common public meeting. The need for this approach may be due to the schedule for remaining activities. 

BOEM expects to provide a final DEIS no later than March 3, 2023, with an actual decision point by April 24. Ocean Wind LLC hopes to begin construction later in 2023. 

Several nonprofit groups, along with individuals from Stockton University, used the comment period to support the proposal, with others in opposition asking how the public could trust the comments, alleging that some of the environmental supporters of the project were also running projects supported by Orsted, the principal owner of Ocean Wind LLC. 

One self-described charter fishing boat captain spoke in favor of the project, but the hearing did not hear from many representatives of the fishing industry, an industry in Cape May County that has been vocal in its opposition to Ocean Wind I. 

BOEM was also accused of not doing enough to make Cape May County’s second homeowner community aware of the project. Several claimed they had only recently heard of the proposed wind farm and that many other vacation homeowners now at the shore for the summer season “don’t have a clue” about it. 

The remaining public hearings are scheduled for July 20 and July 26, both at 5 p.m. Registration is required and can be obtained through the BOEM website. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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