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Judge clears way for Cape Wind, but calls for wildlife review

BOSTON (AP) — A federal judge on Friday rejected several arguments brought by opponents of a proposed first-in-the-nation offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound but ordered the government to review claims that the Cape Wind project could pose risks to migratory birds and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The ruling by US District Court Judge Reggie Walton in Washington, D.C., won praise from both sides, with Cape Wind calling it a ‘‘major victory’’ and opponents predicting it would be a significant setback that could further delay financing and the start of construction.

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The judge turned aside a series of legal challenges to the project from several groups, including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Alliance for Nantucket Sound and the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah. The claims sought to overturn environmental clearances the company had received to build the $2.6 billion, 130-turbine renewable energy project off Cape Cod.

Cape Wind chief executive Jim Gordon said the ruling upholds the first offshore wind lease granted in 2010 by the US Department of the Interior.

‘‘It clears the way for completing the financing of a project that will diversify New England’s electricity portfolio by harnessing our abundant and inexhaustible supply of offshore winds,’’ Gordon said in a statement.

The judge, in his ruling, didn’t suggest the project would cause harm to the whales or protected migratory birds such as the piping plover and roseate tern. But he did say the US Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by not making an independent evaluation of plans for a seasonal shutdown of the wind farm’s rotors to avoid possible collisions with the birds.

He also ordered the National Marine Fisheries Services to review and issue a statement on any possible impacts on the North Atlantic right whale.

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Alliance for Nantucket Sound president Audra Parker said: ‘‘We see it as a setback for Cape Wind.’’

Parker said the additional federal reviews could slow down Cape Wind, which is facing a deadline to begin construction by the end of 2015, when its power contracts with the National Grid and NStar utilities expire.

Parker also said lawyers were reviewing Friday’s court ruling to determine if appeals were possible in any of the areas in which wind farm opponents were unsuccessful.

Critics of Cape Wind say its power would be too costly and it will spoil beautiful vistas while posing environmental and navigational threats.

Environmental groups that support Cape Wind said they didn’t expect any delays resulting from the judge’s ruling to be fatal to the wind farm.

‘‘The claims that would have killed the project are gone,’’ said Kit Kennedy, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. ‘‘The two claims that the plaintiffs did prevail on are very limited.’’

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