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    Whale protection rules issued ahead of wind work offshore

    September 20, 2023 - Steven Rodas - For Hunterdon County Democrat


      As developers get closer to building the Jersey Shore’s first offshore wind turbines, the safety of marine mammals continues to be an important factor.

      The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week issued Ørsted a construction authorization that outlines rules for protecting whales and dolphins while installing monopiles, turbines and other offshore wind infrastructure for its first project.

      The number of stranded whales on the Atlantic Coast this year has reached 62, including nearly two dozen in New York and New Jersey.

      Although three federal agencies and various experts have repeated that scientific evidence has yet to connect the strandings to offshore wind development, the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the permit.

      Ørsted’s Ocean Wind 1 will be crucial in Gov. Phil Murphy’s larger ambition for New Jersey to become a leader in the clean energy alternative on the Eastern Seaboard.

      Despite recent news of project delays to 2026 amid supply chain woes, officials with Ørsted, a Danish wind developer, said the company remains on pace to create the Garden State’s first offshore wind farm in the next three years.

      Ørsted leaders informed investors last month that issues like supply chain challenges may cause it to write off more than $2.2 billion in losses and could lead to calling off its work at the Jersey Shore and parts of the East Coast. But Ørsted officials this week did not provide further comment on the possibility of leaving offshore wind projects.

      In a statement sent Friday, Hina Kazmi, Ocean Wind 1 program director, said: “We have not slowed down or paused any planned project activity.”

      “We are taking as many steps as we can to avoid any unnecessary interactions with protected species,” Tom Suthard, stakeholder relations manager for Ørsted, said on Wednesday while emphasizing any of those interactions would be incidental.

      He noted that the federal government requires the same rule application for gas and oil companies seeking to do work out on the ocean.

      Spokespeople with the company also said the “incidental take authorization” rules — finalized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA — gets Ørsted closer to building Ocean Wind 1.

      That’s despite opposition from some at the Jersey Shore who contend that spinning turbines could obstruct views, are bound to meet economic headwinds and — although it’s unproven — harm ocean species because of the noise emitted from vessels and equipment during survey and construction work.

      At least 12 whales have washed up dead on New Jersey shores this year, according to a tally by the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which responds to local strandings.

      According to NOAA, between the start of the year and Sept. 5, 383 small cetaceans, which include dolphins and porpoises, have stranded along the U.S. Atlantic coast, including 49 in New Jersey.

      Officials with NOAA said earlier this year that while the strandings date back years, even prior to offshore wind preconstruction, the recent surge was considered an increase. Various investigations in the form of “Unusual Mortality Events” remain ongoing for humpback, North Atlantic right and minke whales.

      “NOAA Fisheries has not authorized (or proposed to authorize) mortality or serious injury of whales for any wind-related action,” Andrea Gomez, a spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement Wednesday of Ocean Wind 1’s rule approval.

      “While NOAA Fisheries does not authorize projects, a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take authorization may be modified, suspended or revoked if the holder fails to abide by its conditions, or if NOAA Fisheries determines — among other things — that the authorized taking is having or may have more than a negligible impact on the species or stocks of affected marine mammals,” she added.

      Instead of preconstruction for wind turbines, whale and dolphin strandings have been linked by NOAA and local agencies to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

      Experts have also said some fish prey — because of climate change — are likely migrating differently, forcing large whale species into heavily trafficked areas.

      “While National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges that vessel strikes can result in injury or mortality of marine mammals, we have analyzed the potential for vessel strike resulting from Ocean Wind’s activity and have determined that based on the required mitigation measures specific to vessel strike avoidance included in the final rule and issued Letter of Authorization ... the potential for vessel strike is so low as to be discountable and no vessel strikes are expected or authorized,” an excerpt from the rule states.

      When done, Ocean Wind 1 is expected to include at most 98 offshore wind turbines that will rise about 850 feet roughly 15 miles from the coasts of Cape May and Atlantic Counties, as well as three onshore substations.

      It remains unclear exactly what the construction work to start with could entail but it may begin as soon as Oct. 13, the NOAA rule published Wednesday indicates.

      Ocean Wind 1 will have the capacity to generate about 1,100 megawatts of clean energy. It’s expected to power more than 380,000 homes, federal officials said in July when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) granted Ørsted a Record of Decision approval on the project.

      Another BOEM approval for the company’s construction operation plan is needed for the work to start. Suthard said that is expected to happen “soon.”

      Kazmi, Ocean Wind 1 program director, said Friday that construction of Ocean Wind 1 is anticipated to ramp up in 2024 and be in operation a year later with final commissioning happening in the first quarter of 2026.

      But all signs point to continued protest against the project — one of two Ørsted has been approved for by the state — by some groups and officials.

      In addition to lawsuits surrounding offshore wind project work, there have been several calls by Republican lawmakers for a yet-to-be-heeded moratorium on offshore wind work and even some questions raised by top Democrats.

      Six arrests resulted from a rally Tuesday in Ocean City against work to test a proposed route for a power cable to link offshore wind turbines to an electrical grid in Upper Township.

      Asked if the company is concerned by future protests or planned any additional measures in light of the demonstration, Suthard, of Ørsted, said: “Safety is a top priority for a company like ours.

      “Other companies have the same concerns to make sure that work happens and employees are safe at the worksite,” he continued. “So we do have health and safety experts who continually monitor our sites, no matter where they are.”

      NOAA’s rule for Ocean Wind 1 construction, says Ørsted:

      — can only mildly annoy — not seriously hurt or kill — marine mammals from its noise, operations and movement during project work;

      — must have protected species observers onboard to safeguard animals;

      — has to delay work or stop it altogether if marine mammals are observed and/or remain nearby;

      — is required to establish “shutdown zones” for all in-water construction activities to prevent or reduce risk to whales and other species;

      — must implement vessel strike avoidance measures;

      — has to carry out soft-starts during impact pile-driving using the least amount of hammer energy necessary for installation;

      — must implement a seasonal moratorium on the detonation of undersea explosives from Nov. 1 through April 30

      Meanwhile, the owners of another offshore wind power project agreed to bring the federal government in on their environmental monitoring plans at an earlier stage than has ever been done.

      Community Offshore Wind, a joint venture between Essen, Germany-based RWE and New York-based National Grid Ventures, on Thursday announced a five-year partnership with the NOAA to promote the exchange of data and expertise on environmental monitoring for offshore wind projects.

      As agreed to, the much earlier oversight by the federal agency of the company’s planning could become the new industry standard, according to company president Doug Perkins.

      Community has leased a 125,000-acre site 60 miles off Long Island, New York, and 37 miles off Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey. Its project has yet to be designed but is likely to include at least 100 wind turbines. It could be active by 2030 or 2031, Perkins said.

      NJ Advance Media staff writer Bill Duhart and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

      Steven Rodas, NJ Advances Media, srodas@nj


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