A new legislative commission to study the effects of wind turbines met for the first time Tuesday to select officers and set a schedule for further meetings.
Chaired by Rep. Justin Price, R-Richmond, the five-member panel is part of an initiative begun last June by House Republicans to form a study commission to examine the impacts of Vineyard Wind’s proposed 84-turbine wind farm in waters between Block Island and Martha’s vineyard. The wind farm would be in federal waters that are important to the Rhode Island fishery.
In addition to Price, commission members are Reps. Robert Quattrocchi, R-Scituate, William O’Brien, D-North Providence, Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, and Meghan Lapp, a fishing industry representative.
“It was appropriate to move forward on this,” said Price, a former commercial fisherman. “So last year during the legislative session, we managed to make this pass through. The House of Representatives thought it was appropriate to study this because of the impact that it would have on our fishing industry and other marine life.”
The Fishermen’s Advisory Board advises the Coastal Resources Management Council, the state agency responsible for determining whether the wind farm would be in conformance with state coastal policies.
Negotiations between Vineyard Wind and the fishermen are currently stalled, after the company offered what the board said was a grossly inadequate $6.2 million package to compensate for impeded access to important fishing grounds. The package also included a $23 million fund for research into gear that would make it easier to fish near wind farms.
The state Department of Environmental Management had earlier projected that the commercial fishing industry in Rhode Island could see a loss of at least $30 million in revenue over the 30-year lifespan of the wind farm. Vineyard Wind disagreed with the state's analysis and said its mitigation package was comprehensive. The company has said it is hoping to finish work on its permits by about the end of the third quarter, and that the timing was important because its eligibility for a $12 million federal tax credit will run out in 2019.
The CRMC has given the company additional time to negotiate with fishermen before it renders a decision, and the process has been further delayed by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as a result of the government shutdown. Public comment meetings were supposed to be held in January but have yet to be rescheduled.
Fishermen have also said that they are being left out of the conversation as Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office engages in direct talks with Vineyard Wind. Fishermen's Advisory Board member Chris Brown was blunt when asked about the governor’s role in the current negotiations.
“I’m certain that Gina is imposing all of her will behind the scenes as she possibly can,” he said, adding that at a previous meeting of the advisory board, she was called "an obsequious, pandering toady of the wind farms.”
Richard Fuka, president of another fishermen's group, the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance, is attending Price’s study commission meetings and is expected to be named to the commission if the group expands. Fuka said the Fishermen's Advisory Board does not accurately represent the Rhode Island commercial fishing industry.
“There’s a lot of things in play here that aren’t spoken,” he said. “That’s what happened with the Coastal Resources Management Council’s Fishery Advisory Board under the leadership of Grover Fugate," CRMC director. "Those fishermen that were handpicked to be on that commission, Chris Brown being one of them, those folks weren’t coming close to representing what should have been represented and what needs to be represented when it comes to the fishing industry in Rhode Island. Mainly, it’s the fish [processing] houses that have the biggest stake in the game and they have not been players in even the mitigation process that Vineyard Wind is going through right now.”
Brown dismissed Fuka as not being a working commercial fisherman.
“There are few things I follow with less interest than Rich Fuka’s comings and goings,” he said. “He doesn’t have any credibility. He’s not a fisherman. He’s a fiberglass boat worker.”
CRMC spokeswomen Laura Dwyer said the council had only recently learned of Price's commission.
“We’re aware of the commission and have been (and will continue to) follow its work,” she said.