By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The House of Representative is set to authorize a study to determine if offshore wind facilities are killing whales and other sea life.
The sponsor of the proposed legislative commission, Rep. Sherry Roberts, R-West Greenwich, sought the study after a juvenile humpback whale washed ashore in Jamestown in June 2017. The story received international attention after conservative media websites publicized speculation that the Block Island Wind Farm was to blame for the whale’s death.
Former commercial fisherman and Republican political candidate Tina Jackson of Charlestown is convinced the five turbines are to blame for killing the whale. She said she warned the community that Deepwater Wind's Block Island Wind Farm would hurt the environment. She has offered no proof.
“And look what happened. Sure enough within five months of Deepwater (Wind) going on-line there were seven whale deaths and two turtle fatalities. There hasn’t been seven dead whales in a decade, let alone in five months time. So it’s clear that the turbines are a problem. It’s the only logical reason for the tragedy.”
The death of the Jamestown whale is one in a spike in humpback whale deaths along the Eastern Seaboard that began in January 2016 and continues today. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries division classifies the deaths of 76 humpback whales as a marine mammal "unusual mortality event." Vessel strikes appear to be the leading cause of deaths, but only about half of the whales have undergone partial or full necropsies. Most of the deaths, including the Jamestown whale, are classified as “undermined."
Richard Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen's Alliance, said the study should be done before larger wind facilities are built in the designated offshore wind area between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The fishing industry in both states is at risk of destruction, he said.
The damage European offshore wind facilities have done to fishing isn't getting reported in the U.S. media, Fuka said. “This (issue) is a standout above and beyond the regulations that are crippling us currently.”
Current studies, Fuka said, are done on the behalf of wind developers and therefore don’t present an unbiased view of the problems, such as the limitations on fishing in and around the turbines.
“We know what's happening on top of the water. We don’t know what’s happening on the bottom of the water," he said.
In April, the National Coalition for Fishing Communities asked Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to approve no more than 400 megawatts of offshore wind projects in the wind energy area on the outer continental shelf, a prime fishing location.
“A detailed study plan that enjoys broad support among fishing stakeholders is urgently needed,” according to a coalition statement.
Last month, Massachusetts approved an 800-megawatt wind facility and Rhode Island was awarded a 400-megawatt project in the federal wind energy area between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.
Most existing studies, including a 14-part series completed in 2017 by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, have concluded that wind turbines alone don’t harm sea life but rather that the pile driving of the structures scares away dolphins and other mammals. The operation of the wind turbines also contributes to the many sources of noise in the ocean that affect sea life, such as ships and sonar.
Jackson claimed that the mainstream studies are vague and confusing and don't refute the risks from the rare metals in the turbines' magnets, which, she said, are worse than nuclear waste.
Wind turbines "are highly detrimental to the environment all the way around,” Jackson said.
The House is likely to authorize the study commission next week. The five-member board would have until May 7, 2019 to issue a report.