By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
The renewable-energy project touted as the nation’s first offshore wind farm has been plagued by safety problems since offshore construction began last month.
According to a report by the ABS Group, the five-turbine project, 3 miles off Block Island and owned by Providence-based Deepwater Wind, has had numerous issues related to outdated equipment and workplace hazards. Some of the problems, classified as near misses, include dropped objects, loss of control of suspended loads, employees working under suspended loads, improper placement of safety equipment, and rescue skiff problems.
The report targeted concerns with cranes and the lifting process. According to the 13-page report, the cranes are older and poorly suited for offshore use. The report also identified an unsecured barge, noted issues with crane and pile-driving equipment, and makes mention of repeated failures of rigging equipment that led to the loss of materials.
The incidents noted include damage to one of the underwater steel supports, called jackets. The first of five 400-ton jacket foundations was installed July 26. Soon after, one of the legs was dented after it was hit by a construction barge. The jacket was removed and shipped to New Jersey for repair.
Deepwater Wind recently told ecoRI News that there have been no injuries from the incidents and the 30-megawatt wind farm remains on track to be in-service by the fourth quarter of 2016.
Three of the steel jackets have been installed, and construction was scheduled to run for eight weeks this summer, with 70 employees operating more than a dozen barges, tugboats, crew ships and other vessels.
The report by ABS Group was a five-week project update given during the Aug. 25 meeting of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). ABS Group, based in Houston, is a third-party advisor designated by the CRMC to oversee construction and other aspects of the project.
Several members of the council didn’t respond to requests to discuss the report. CRMC chairwoman Anne Maxwell Livingston deferred comment to CRMC director Grover Fugate. Fugate told ecoRI News that Deepwater Wind has assured him they are fixing the problems and following ABS Group recommendations.
ABS Group suggested several on-site changes, starting with full-time safety monitoring, a review of safety practices, a review of crane and pile-driving operations and re-training, if needed.
Deepwater Wind told ecoRI News that it agreed with those recommendations, and its offshore contractor is implementing them, including dedicating more full-time safety personnel to all work shifts.
The Deepwater Wind Block Island project faces another challenge, on the legal front. Opponents of offshore wind energy have once again filed a court case, this time in Rhode Island District Court, challenging the above-market power-purchase agreement that essentially finances the wind project.
On Aug. 14, Benjamin Riggs of Newport, former North Kingstown state Rep. Laurence Earhardt and the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, which represents manufacturer Toray Plastics, filed complaints against the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Deepwater Wind in hopes of overturning the price agreement that was approved by the PUC in 2010.
Similar legal challenges failed to halt the project. In 2011, the state Supreme Court upheld the 20-year power agreement between Deepwater Wind and National Grid. The purchase price starts at 24.4 center per kilowatt-hour. Annual increases of 3.5 percent kick in each year of the deal.
A hearing has yet to be held for the case.