DEM hears objections, support on SouthCoast cable route

Many express concerns over ‘legacy sediment’ being disrupted and polluting waters

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/27/24

PORTSMOUTH — Nearly three dozen people on both sides of the offshore wind debate offered their two cents to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) during a public comment …

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DEM hears objections, support on SouthCoast cable route

Many express concerns over ‘legacy sediment’ being disrupted and polluting waters


PORTSMOUTH — Nearly three dozen people on both sides of the offshore wind debate offered their two cents to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) during a public comment hearing last week on SouthCoast Wind’s application for a dredging permit.

The hearing at Portsmouth High School, which lasted two hours, 15 minutes and was attended by more than 100 people, was conducted by RIDEM’s Office of Customer and Technical Assistance, represented by its administrator, Ron Gagnon, as well as Joseph LoBianco, deputy chief of legal services for RIDEM. RIDEM also brought along a stenographer to record comments.

The Feb. 22 hearing was called to gather comments on SouthCoast’s application to RIDEM to permit dredging work in the Sakonnet River and Mt. Hope Bay in Portsmouth.

SouthCoast Wind (formerly Mayflower Wind) proposes to construct an offshore wind energy generating facility in federal waters approximately 30 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and 23 miles south of Nantucket within a federal lease area. The plan calls for connecting that facility via export cables through federal and state waters and eventually to an electrical substation at Brayton Point in Somerset in order to connect to the regional electric grid. 

To do that, the developers says they would need to run transmission cables up the Sakonnet River, beneath Island Park Beach, up Boyds Lane and Anthony Road, then north before reentering waters in Mt. Hope Bay and making final landfall in Somerset. 

Although the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board will ultimately decide whether SouthCoast’s plan goes through or not, other agencies are reviewing permits that are part of the overall development. RIDEM is reviewing the dredging application, which calls for:

• Installation, operation, and maintenance of two underwater power export cables and associated communications cabling, each approximately 20.4 miles long.

• Possible placement of fill (i.e., secondary cable protection) in state waters over the proposed underwater export cables to protect segments of the submarine export cables and existing utilities.

• Installation of the underwater export cables at the project’s proposed landfall construction areas utilizing horizontal directional drilling (HDD) with work including temporary excavation/dredging at eight offshore HDD pits at each of the two landfalls on either side of Aquidneck Island at Portsmouth.

The proposed work involves dredging of approximately 1,867 cubic yards (CY) of sediment from eight HDD pits for at total of approximately 14,936 cubic yards. The excavated material will be backfilled into the HDD pits. Cable burial methods may include a jet plow or jet sled-type burial tool. Alternatively, cable may be laid on the seabed and trenched post-lay or a trench may be pre-cut prior to cable installation.

Gagnon and LoBianco set ground rules at the start of last week’s hearing and made it clear they were just there to listen and record comments. “This is not really a back-and-forth conversation,” said LoBianco, noting that the agency will collect all comments for staff review before issuing a report.

Gagnon said the hearing was not a forum for debating, arguing, or offering any other dialogue that didn’t focus specifically on the dredging application. RIDEM’s review was limited to just the cable route in Rhode Island waters — not the wind farms, federal waters, or the proposed overland cable route in Portsmouth, he said.

Ground rules flouted

For some speakers, however, RIDEM’s ground rules fell on deaf ears, as attendees wanted to debate the overall merits of wind energy, ask RIDEM questions, and even take shots at the department for perceived past failings.

One resident, Karen Gleason, went well over her allotted speaking time to criticize not only SouthCoast’s plans but what she characterized as RIDEM’s failure to enforce environmental regulations during the capping of the old town dump in Island Park.

“How are we in this town supposed to trust DEM? Respectfully, your record to date has not met our expectations,” Gleason said.

Another resident, Karen Mello, said she had lots of questions for RIDEM and SouthCoast, only to be reminded that wasn’t the purpose of the hearing.

As did several other residents, however, Mello shared her concerns about any sediment that the laying of cables could disrupt. She and others said mercury and other toxic chemicals are present in the “legacy sediment,” which could end up polluting an otherwise “pristine” Sakonnet River.

Donna LaFleur, an Island Park resident since 1959, said local waters are clean and thriving with fish again after so many years of neglect. Holding back tears, she told the RIDEM representatives, “Your job is to protect the environment, not to pollute it. Leave the sediment in the seabed and never touch it.”

Edward Allan, an Atlantic Avenue resident for eight years who previously lived on Aquidneck Avenue for 40 years, said he was one of those residents forced to invest over $20,000 to rework his failing septic system. “It has worked; the water is cleaner. I don’t know, after a project like this, if it would still be cleaner,” Allan said.

Another local resident, Ken Mulder, was one of several speakers who said SouthCoast Wind has not published the results of any core sampling of the sediments. “Running a cable up that river is going to release those sediments and pollute those waters again,” he said. “Dredging this river is not going to help global warming.”

Mulder joined several other speakers, including Emil Cipolla, in urging SouthCoast to come up with an alternate route. Cipolla said there would be less environmental damage if the cables took a southern route up Narragansett Bay. 

“I don’t believe this cable belongs in the Sakonnet River,” added David Gleason, the only member of the Town Council to vote against entering a host community agreement with SouthCoast Wind on Jan. 16. Under the agreement, the town will receive a total investment of $23.22 million over 33 years while receiving assurances that local construction impacts would be “minimized.” 

Gleason, who said above-ground alternate routes were discarded by SouthCoast because it’s “cheaper to go down the river,” also charged the RIDEM review was premature because the developer “doesn’t have any power purchase agreements.”

A former council member, Paul Kesson, asked RIDEM how it would protect residents if an offshore wind turbine failed and dumped hazardous material into the ocean. He reminded them of the first land turbine built near the high school, which failed not long after it was erected.

“It’s not whether a wind turbine will fail, but when,” he said.

Speaking in support

SouthCoast did find support from about a dozen speakers, however, including four from Climate Action RI, a nonprofit action group which supports initiatives aimed at slowing climate change.

Jeff Migneault, co-president of Climate Action RI, was the third speaker of the evening and warned RIDEM there would be a “lot of misinformation presented here tonight.” 

While Migneault acknowledged there may be some negative impacts from dredging, the question was how serious they’d be “compared to the clean energy from the wind farms which will replace an immense amount of energy produced by fossil fuels.” He said that 350,000 Americans die from fossil fuel air pollution each year, which translates to 1,000 Rhode Islanders annually.

Climate Action RI members pointed out that dredging and burying cables is a common and safe practice with the proper oversight. One representative, Nick Horton, noted that Sakonnet Harbor in Little Compton was created by dredging, and in 1954 the Algonquin Natural gas pipeline was buried under the Sakonnet River. Now Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. wants to replace 1.85 miles of that pipeline and “make it twice as wide,” said Horton.

“I’m curious as to whether there’s as much opposition to that application as there is to this,” he said.

David Booth of Tiverton, field coordinator for Climate Jobs RI, said he supported the project because it will produce clean energy and create more local jobs.

‘We’re talking about getting real jobs back — not just installing solar panels,” Booth said. “There are new ways of doing things that are better … than the old ways. I grew up here on the water. There’s no flounder anymore. There’s just scup, because the water is too warm. Maybe by the time my 3-year-old is 10, he’ll know what a flounder is.”

Dwight McNeill, who lives 100 yards from the Sakonnet River, said he’s seen the obvious impacts of climate change on the local shoreline. “The idea of climate change coming home right here was very obvious to me,” said McNeill, adding that regulators can’t allow “special-interest groups” from slowing down the important transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Rich Tully acknowledged the cable project could impact him since he lives on the Sakonnet River. “But I also get there are other things going on in the world this project aims to mitigate,” said Tully, adding he’s witnessed significant beach erosion due to the increase in the number of major storms in recent years. 

“These impacts are real. Ten years ago I used to see lobstermen dropping traps in front of my house. That doesn’t happen now, because of global warming,” he said.

renewable energy, SouthCoast Wind, RIDEM, R.I. Department of Environmental Management, offshore wind, wind energy

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