Groups Appeal To Feds To Protect Assateague

ASSATEAGUE — Despite assurances the barrier island is only on the short list as a possible site for a transmission line connecting a future offshore wind farm to the mainland, a coalition of local environmental groups last week took their concerns over the proposal to the federal government.

Local attorney Hugh Cropper IV, on behalf of private sector groups, quasi-governmental organizations and scores of environmental advocates and volunteers, this week sent a letter to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) outlining concerns about a possible transmission line crossing Assateaugue Island and connecting future wind energy turbines off the coast of Ocean City to an electric power distribution facility on the mainland.

Called the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC), the network of underwater transmission lines would create a superhighway of sorts for moving the energy harnessed by future offshore wind farms to millions of electric service customers throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The AWC is currently exploring several options for a landfall for its transmission line along the Maryland coast including one proposal that has the line crossing Assateague.

The Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the Assateague Coastal Trust, for example, have already appealed to the AWC to have Assateague removed from the short list of possible landfall sites. They have received some assurances from the organization the inclusion of Assateague on its lists of proposed locations is only part of a larger evaluation process. Cropper’s letter this week to the federal BOEM takes the concerns to a higher level.

“We strongly oppose any disturbance whatsoever including crossings, directional boring or transmission lines over, across or under Assateague State Park or Assateague Island National Seashore, Sinepuxent Bay, Chincoteague Bay and Newport Bay, including their watersheds,” the letter reads. “Our opposition has been expressed to Atlantic Wind Connection.”

The letter explains how $400 million has been spent to preserve and protect the 41,000 acres of prime beach, coastal dune and salt marsh habitat of Assateague Island National Seashore. It also describes how the various state and local organizations collaborate on meeting specified goals to provide for water quality protection and habitat management on Assateague and the surrounding coastal bays watersheds.

The letter also asserts Assateague and the surrounding salt marshes provide unparalleled habitat of thousands of flora and fauna, most notably the salt marsh sparrow, the seaside sparrow and the piping plover, which is classified as endangered.

“Assateague State Park and Assateague Island National Seashore are pristine and undeveloped,” the letter reads. “In addition to the above described habitat, this barrier island and the adjacent coastal bays serve as an important resting ground for migratory waterfowl each year. It is estimated that over 50,000 geese use this area as a resting ground during their annual migration.”

Cropper’s letter calls for the proposed high-voltage transmission line to be sited somewhere north of Assateague in areas already densely developed.

“There are viable and better alternatives north of the Ocean City Inlet for a transmission line making landfall,” the letter reads. “The proposed lease area for the offshore wind farm is located in the northern grid off Maryland’s coast.”

For their part, AWC officials, after receiving similar letters of concern from the MCBP and the Assateague Coastal Trust and Coastkeeper, for example, have attempted to allay somewhat concerns about an Assateague landfall for the transmission line.

In a letter to the MCBP last week, AWC Director of Permitting Kris Ohleth attempted to address the local concerns, explaining the company has no desire to land the transmission line at Assateague at this point, but is merely exploring any and all options as part of its due diligence.

“We share your concerns regarding a landfall location at Assateague, and please be assured that it is not our intention to make landfall there,” the letter reads. “Indeed, we are aware of and share the concerns you have expressed.”

In the letter, Ohleth explains there could be legislative barriers to landing the transmission line at Assateague, but the barrier island is included on the list of potential locations as part of the larger evaluation process.

“We are aware of pending state legislative provisions to exclude Assateague as a landfall location for offshore wind transmission,” the letter reads. “Nevertheless, exploring Assateague as an option is a necessary step in the evaluation process that will culminate in the presentation of the most sensible and desirable route for final permitting.”