OCEAN CITY — A 300-foot-plus meteorological tower will be installed about 17 miles off the coast of Ocean City next month in advance of the US Wind offshore wind farm project.
At the close of Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan provided a briefing on a public hearing held last Thursday in Ocean Pines on the pending installation of a 328-foot tall meteorological, or met, tower, in roughly the middle of US Wind’s approved Wind Energy Area. The tower will be used to collect wind resource data within the Maryland lease area in advance of the future installation of as many as 32 massive offshore wind turbines.
Since the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) in 2017 approved two offshore wind energy projects off the coast of Ocean City, town officials have been in a prolonged battle to have the two approved companies site their wind turbines as far as 26 nautical miles off the coast, or a distance believed to have them not visible from the shoreline. After considerable debate, US Wind acquiesced somewhat and has since agreed to place its turbines no closer than 17 miles from the resort’s coast.
The installation of the met tower slated to begin roughly in the middle of July is the next step in what has been a long development process. Meehan said on Monday he heard about last Thursday’s public meeting in Ocean Pines indirectly and attended it with Worcester County Commissioner Joe Mitrecic.
“It was a public hearing, but there weren’t a lot of people there because I don’t think there was a lot of notice about it,” he said. “There were some commercial fishermen there and they’re very concerned about the pounding of the pilings, especially at this time of year with the fishing industry and the White Marlin Open and the Poor Girl’s tournament and all of the other tournaments about to take place.”
State Senator Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) said she was informed of the meeting via an email from a US Wind representative last Monday, three days in advance. She said the email was an invitation “to all stakeholders to a briefing on the meteorological tower that will be constructed 15 nautical miles offshore from Ocean City.”
“I, too, share Mayor Meehan’s concerns that interested stakeholders like our commercial and recreational fishermen, local businesses and interested citizens were not aware of the public meeting as US Wind reported that it is moving forward to install the meteorological tower in mid-July,” she said.
US Wind officials have said the installation of the met tower will begin in mid-July with a construction schedule of roughly 10 days. The tower will be 328 feet tall with a braced caisson foundation, a steel deck and a galvanized steel mast. The foundation will be sunk at a water depth of around 88 feet. The construction spread will include a lift barge, cargo barge, a tow tug and several crew boats. US Wind has requested a 500-meter safety buffer during the tower construction, although access to the area will not be limited after construction is completed.
Meehan said he reiterated the town’s concerns with the project in general at the outset of last Thursday’s public hearing in Ocean Pines.
“I was very upfront with our concerns,” he said. “I gave a disclaimer at the beginning that we remain opposed to this project as it’s presented. I asked for the true costs of what’s really going to Maryland companies with the construction and placement of this meteorological tower. A certain portion of what is being spent on this project is supposed to go to Maryland-based companies. They didn’t have those figures, but they promised to get them to me.”
From the beginning, US Wind has extolled the virtues of the economic impact associated with its offshore wind energy project locally and throughout Maryland. In a release from late May announcing the met tower installation plan, US Wind President Riccardo Toto reiterated the overall project is expected to create roughly 7,000 direct and indirect jobs in Maryland including an in-state investment of nearly $1.5 billion.
“This important milestone represents US Wind’s ongoing commitment to realizing this first-of-its-kind large-scale renewable energy project in the state of Maryland,” he said. “We look forward to delivering the significant economic and job-creation benefits that our project represents and to advancing our leadership position in the fast-developing new American industry.”
However, the irony of the first major fabrication project associated with US Wind’s offshore wind energy project going to a Louisiana-based firm was not lost on Meehan.
“This tower is coming up from Louisiana,” he said. “It wasn’t built in Baltimore or anywhere in Maryland. It was built in Louisiana. It will be installed, I believe, around July 29.”
Another concern is the timing of the installation of the massive meteorological tower, particularly in the midst of the offshore sportfishing season and with the White Marlin Open looming in early August.
“In June 2018, US Wind held a similar meeting ahead of the planned installation that summer,” a press release reads. “Due to fabrication delays and the input of the fisheries community at that meeting, US Wind agreed to postpone the installation until after the 2018 White Marlin Open. We are aware of the dates of the 2019 White Marlin Open and the planned mid-July installation will be completed before that time.”
Meehan said on Monday there was a small contingent of commercial fishermen at last Thursday’s meeting in Ocean Pines that voiced some concerns.
“The commercial fishermen that fish for conch and lobsters and clams etc. are very concerned about losing equipment,” he said. “They are also concerned about the construction and noise scaring off fish and scaring their catch away. That was very evident during that meeting.”
Meehan said he voiced some of the same concerns about the potential impact of the project on both the commercial and recreational fisheries that work those areas. He also said a union representative from Baltimore was on hand to help ensure significant contracts associated with the offshore wind energy project would be going to Maryland companies as promised.
“I said we supported the commercial fishermen in the room,” he said. “There was a representative from a union in Baltimore and I said we supported them as well. We just want this project 26 miles offshore and out of our viewshed. We also want to make sure the promises made to those given industries are kept.”
For her part, Carozza said she also listened attentively to commercial fishermen’s concerns about the potential impacts on marine life in the project area, concerns about the damage to or loss of expensive fishing gear, the potential limited access to prime, fertile fishing grounds and other concerns about potential vessel collisions with the tower and ultimately the turbines.
“I too share the concerns raised by one of our local commercial waterman who attended the June 13 meeting on the possible negative impact of the tower on commercial fishing, especially with it being constructed right before the White Marlin Open,” she said.
Meehan said US Wind has conducted similar public meetings during the ramp up to the offshore wind energy project in other jurisdictions around the area except in the one place it matters the most, again suggesting perhaps that is by design.
“They’ve had a number of meetings,” he said. “They’ve had them in Salisbury and they’ve had them in Berlin and now Ocean Pines. The people who really have a standing on this issue in terms of the viewshed in particular are the people of Ocean City and if they are going to have additional hearings, they should be here in Ocean City.”
Carozza agreed, saying, “I fully support Mayor Meehan’s request that the next US Wind meeting be held in Ocean City to give all stakeholders the opportunity to attend and participate in these public forums.”
Throughout the process, the town of Ocean City has supported the US Wind project in general, but has strongly opposed the placement of any turbines within 26 miles of the resort coast, or the distance from which town officials believe the massive turbines would not be visible from the Ocean City shoreline. The town’s opposition regarding the distance from the coast has largely been based on the premise visible turbines would have a detrimental impact on the views from Ocean City shore and, perhaps more importantly, property values.
Throughout the debate, town officials have pointed out the size of the individual turbines approved years ago have continued to grow in height exponentially, adding to the angst over their potential visibility from the coast. Carozza said the steadily-growing height of the turbines in the finished project was reason for concern.
“I continue to oppose the construction of the wind turbines as the size of the towers has significantly increased from the original proposal, which, I would think, would give standing for the Public Service Commission to review the updated proposal,” she said. “My concerns have been focused on the negative impact on visibility from the shore, potential harm to our commercial and recreational fishing industry and the project’s true cost to ratepayers and taxpayers.”