PROVIDENCE — A group of fishermen in Rhode Island is threatening to sue the state’s coastal agency, the federal government, and developer Ørsted over the under-development of the South Fork wind farm in federal waters off Rhode Island.
The Fishermen’s Advisory Board and the individual fishers it represents said in a letter Wednesday that the deal to approve the South Fork wind farm did not adequately compensate them for their losses. Making matters worse, they say, a fishing vessel working on the project broadcast over a radio channel used for emergency and distress calls in April that nobody was allowed within a mile and a half of either side of recent work to construct the project’s cable.
The vessel didn’t have the authority to do that, the fishermen say. Instead, the Coast Guard had sole authority to control vessel traffic there, and the no-go zone is limited to a maximum of 500 meters (about a third of a mile).
That’s only one example, the fishers said, of the need for federal and state regulators to take another look at the approved construction and operations plan and the mitigation package to see if it is really enough. The mitigation package as part of Rhode Island’s review of the South Fork project was $5.2 million.
The letter was sent by the attorney for the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, Marisa Desautel, to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the US Department of the Interior, Ørsted Offshore North America, and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. The Fishermen’s Advisory Board is an internal CRMC panel made up of commercial, recreational, and charter fishers. To file what are called citizen suits under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, potential plaintiffs have to give a 60-day heads up to provide an opportunity to cure any issues.
Desautel said in an interview that “the likelihood of this coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion is very low.”
“We sent the notice. We’re hopeful there can be an opportunity for conversation, but we’re not betting on it,” Desautel said.
Chris Raia, a spokesman for the project, said in a written statement: “We do not comment on the prospect of potential litigation, but may make filings in response to a lawsuit if filed. In the meantime, we are continuing the work to construct the South Fork Wind Farm in accordance with all provisions outlined in our Construction and Operations Plan.”
The legal notice comes a day after the CRMC signed off on a different offshore wind proposal, Revolution Wind. Revolution Wind would be significantly larger than South Fork, and include a bigger mitigation package of nearly $13 million. South Fork will bring its power to Long Island, and its components are set to be brought out to the project site for installation in the coming weeks, the developer said recently. Revolution Wind would bring its power via a cable to Rhode Island, and still needs federal government approval even after the deal that the CRMC signed off on Tuesday night. The coastal regulator’s OK Tuesday came despite the opposition of local commercial and recreational fishermen who, like during South Fork, said the mitigation package wasn’t enough.
The threat to take legal action over South Fork and the opposition to Revolution Wind, coming in the same week, highlight escalating concerns in the fishing industry about large-scale offshore wind projects as they start to become a reality off the state’s coast. Supporters of the wind farm projects say that while they will have an impact on fishing, the mitigation package is fair — more than fair, Ørsted’s CEO of the Americas said recently. And, they say, the projects are necessary as the state tries to combat climate change, reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs. Electrification will become all the more important as the state looks to phase out new gasoline car sales by 2035.
The problems with South Fork’s cable and the errant radio broadcast came up during the CRMC review process for Revolution Wind, although the CRMC declined to take up the fishermen’s request to delay a decision based on what had happened.
“Our concern is credibility,” Desautel said at a CRMC meeting in April.
Two fishermen also testified at the hearing about the errant announcement. The issue lasted for two days, closing off a broader area for fishing than was actually allowed, and it took the involvement of a member of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board to clear it up, they testified.
Robin Main, attorney for Revolution Wind — like South Fork, a joint venture of Ørsted and the utility Eversource — said the announcement was made based on a misunderstanding. The fishing vessel was guarding a portion of the cable on the seabed floor, she said.
“There was a mistake with a radio announcement that went out by the vessel. It was immediately corrected; done, end of story, it has been completed,” Main said.
Desautel said that the notice was not immediately corrected.
“This was two days of fishing that Rhode Islanders lost,” Desautel said. “The only recourse is the notice that went out.”
That notice includes a list of demands, including: that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management update the approved construction and operations plan and mitigation measures, or order a suspension of activity; that the CRMC update the economic impact analysis; and that Ørsted pay the fishermen for uncompensated losses.
If that doesn’t happen, the fishermen — part of an internal group that advises the CRMC — say they will be “forced to take judicial action to force compliance.”
“It’s really important that Rhode Islanders understand that this is not just about money,” Desautel said. “The fishermen would rather have these projects denied. It’s about protecting the existing habitat and the ocean generally. Filing this notice is not what the fishermen want. They are compelled to file it. They are left with no other choice.”
BOEM and CRMC declined to comment.