Several dead whales and dolphins at the Jersey Shore this winter may have been what initially drove residents out to Ocean City on Wednesday night for a discussion of their suspected — but unproven — connection to offshore wind pre-construction.
But the bevy of other reasons attendees were not happy with the development out on the ocean were soon apparent.
“One of the things we tried to do for tonight was to sort of narrow this to the few major things,” Michael Donohue, special counsel for Cape May County, said at the mic as he moved to a new slide during a presentation.
Among 16 areas of concern listed on a screen were tourism, fisheries, bird strikes, noise pollution, the view, marine mammals and navigation.
“We are not against clean energy, but it should not come at the cost to our environment or to New Jersey’s economy,” Bob DiIoril, a 67-year-old Seaville resident, said moments later.
The refrain — that the meeting was not being held to oppose offshore wind entirely — was repeated by Cape May Mayor Jay Gillian earlier but challenged by another resident during a public comments portion who, upon noting many were there to do just that, drew applause.
“Let me tell you something, this affects everybody that owns here, that rents here, that has a business here, that fishes here, that eats here, taxpayers, non-taxpayers, it affects every single one of us,” said Michael DeVlieger, a former Ocean City councilman.
As he concluded, DeVlieger added: “If you don’t think there’s causation between the whales and the dolphins dying and (the offshore) work out on the sea right now, your head’s in the sand.”
The meeting at Ocean City Tabernacle, a nondenominational church at the Jersey Shore, came hours after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection denied that there’s evidence to show offshore wind pre-construction has caused the series of whale deaths.
Hundreds nearly filled the 800 seats in the church Wednesday for about two hours to voice concerns. Gov. Phil Murphy and the companies gearing up to construct the state’s first offshore wind turbines have said they are cognizant of those concerns and there should not be alarm.
Various residents opined that offshore wind turbines and substations will not be visually appealing — images of them on a screen producing groans. Many speculated that wind energy in New Jersey will not have any climate benefits, could disrupt the pacemakers of residents nearby through electromagnetic fields, may result
Various residents opined that offshore wind turbines and substations will not be visually appealing — images of them on a screen producing groans. Many speculated that wind energy in New Jersey will not have any climate benefits, could disrupt the pacemakers of residents nearby through electromagnetic fields, may result in children being “brainwashed” of their benefits and negatively impact the environment.
The last bullet point in Donohue’s list of concerns: “dozens of critical ‘unknowns.’”
“Ørsted prioritizes coexistence with our communities and marine wildlife,” Maddy Urbish, head of government affairs and market strategy at Ørsted, said in a statement. “The offshore wind industry is subject to the most stringent level of protections for marine mammals and protected species. Every aspect of our surveys, construction, and operations are reviewed by multiple agencies and subject to protective conditions, including vessel speeds, time of year restrictions, and mandatory observers.”
The link between marine mammal deaths and ocean wind survey work has additionally been contested this winter by federal science agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Marine Mammal Commission.
Observers are stationed onboard survey vessels to protect animals, agencies have said. As for acoustic and geophysical survey work needed in the planning process, officials from NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Center for Marine Acoustics said they have not been shown to seriously harm animals.
“As of March 2023, no offshore wind-related construction activities have taken place in waters off the New Jersey coast, and DEP is aware of no credible evidence that offshore wind-related survey activities could cause whale mortality,” the DEP said in a statement.
Since Dec. 5, eleven dead whales have washed up on beaches in New Jersey and New York, according to figures from NOAA and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a non-profit authorized by the state and the National Marine Fisheries under a federal permit to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals.
More than 20 dead whales have also washed ashore — none with evidence offshore wind work was to blame — across the Atlantic Coast since Dec. 1, NOAA previously said.
While NOAA continues to investigate the whale deaths, the federal agency has said suspected causes include vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglement and climate change forcing whales into different areas for food which has led to more interactions with ships.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection echoed those sentiments Wednesday.
“While DEP has no reason to conclude that whale mortality is attributable to offshore wind-related activities, DEP will continue to monitor,” state officials. The department noted that $8.5 million has been dedicated to help guarantee development that’s safe for the state’s ecology.
The meeting, held by Cape May County, was described as an opportunity to inform the public about the ongoing offshore wind projects. Ørsted’s Ocean Wind 1 and Ocean Wind 2 are slated to add as many as 98 turbines and 3 offshore substations about 15 miles offshore from various Jersey Shore towns in Cape May and Atlantic Counties — with more details on additional Ocean Wind 2 turbines yet to be released.
More than a dozen speakers said they were wary offshore wind farms could not be sustainable in the state overtime, are prone to block their views and could result in a dip in tourism dollars.
READ MORE: N.J. invites more offshore wind proposals, says whale deaths not linked to prep work
Some residents, lawmakers and local officials have also called for a 30-day moratorium of survey work and federal intervention during an investigation into the recent whale deaths. Donahue demanded a 90-day moratorium Wednesday.
The DEP highlighted earlier in the day that since January the department has also received concerns following the whale deaths, despite NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management already deeming offshore wind survey work safe for marine mammals and not allowing survey vessels to harm animals while mapping out leasing areas to lay cables and bury other infrastructure.
A number of environmental groups have also concurred that the state’s offshore wind plans will be part of a larger solution to climate change and its impact on marine species.
Two speakers, including Jim Akers of Landisville, were among the few Wednesday who spoke in favor of the projects.
“I think that offshore wind power is an imperative step towards a transition to clean energy for years,” the 41-year-old fisherman said as he was met with boos from some in the crowd. “These coming wind and transmission projects will help create thousands of jobs, high paying jobs. (They) will create diversity in the local economy and will help slow climate change.”
Another meeting, hosted by Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd Dist., is scheduled for Thursday afternoon at the Wildwood Convention Center.
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Steven Rodas may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.