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FAA rules Cape Wind project poses no hazard to planes

One hundred and thirty towering wind turbines off Cape Cod will not pose any hazard to planes, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled yesterday, clearing what is likely the final federal regulatory hurdle for the controversial project.

The determinationis the latest in a series of rulings the FAA has made on the controversial project in Nantucket Sound - and appears to be on the concluding end of an 11-year saga to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm. Although Cape Wind officials have not yet announced financing for the more than $2 billion project, the company has commissioned engineering studies off Cape Cod and says construction will begin next year.

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While the danger of the 440-foot turbines to aircraft was always a concern to opponents of the wind farm, it rose in prominence in the last two years as other federal approvals were awarded for the project. The FAA’s last no hazard determination - one of several for the project - was overturned last year by the US Court of Appeals who said the agency failed to adequtely review how difficult it could be for pilots to nvaigate over 25 square miles of wind turbines.

Since then, FAA had re-examined the project amid a backdrop of a congressional investigation into FAA’s approval of Cape Wind, and leaked emails from FAA officials obtained by the main opposition group that alluded to the extreme political sensitivity of the project.

“It’s unfortunate the FAA once again ignored very real safety concerns and ignored the previous court decision to revoke Cape Wind’s aviation safety permit,” said Audra Parker, president of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the project’s main opposition group. She pledged to appeal this decision and said there are still four other outstanding lawsuits against the project.

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The FAA released a short statement to the Globe that said the agency “completed an aeronautical study and has determined that the proposed construction of the 130 wind turbines, individually and as a group, has no effect on aeronautical operations.’’

The FAA determination is good for 18 months, and Cape Wind has had to go before the agency several times because of the protracted fight to build the project.

“Cape Wind is once again pleased to have received FAA approval,’’ said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind. “This is the fourth determination of no hazard during the FAA’s 10-year review of Cape Wind, which began in the Bush administration.”

Cape Wind has overcome years of environmental review and political maneuvering, including opposition from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose home overlooked Nantucket Sound. More recently, two Wampanoag Native American tribes that the turbines would disturb spiritual sun greetings and ancient burial grounds now covered by the sea. A movie was even made about the project called “Cape Spin - An American Power Struggle.”

US Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar approved the wind farm in 2010, and the project gained new traction earlier this year when a merger between NStar and Northeast Utilities included a promise for NStart to purchase almost 30 percent of Cape Wind’s output, supposedly giving Cape Wind enough promised sales to likely secure financing. The company had previously negotiated with National Grid to buy 50 percent of the power. But the company has not yet announced any financing.

The FAA examines structures to see if they are so high it would obstruct pilots or whether the array could interfere with radar in finding aircraft. The determination says it will not obstruct pilots because the turbines are below 500 feet which would trigger an “obstruction standard” by the FAA. And an upgrade to the radar in the area - as part of a national upgrade - should ensure there is no inteference but if there is, Cape Wind must set aside $15 million in an escrow account in case problems occur and a new radar system has to be installed.

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