DEP opposes wind farm in Del. Bay

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009.)

State environmental officials oppose wind turbines anywhere in the Delaware Bay, a position that could jeopardize an Ocean County firm’s plans for a wind park there.

The Department of Environmental Protection cited potential threats to migratory birds, oyster seed beds and other resources in an Aug. 20 letter to Delsea Energy, of Toms River. Scott Brubaker, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for land use management, wrote “the Delaware Bay is not an appropriate area for development of wind energy.”

Delsea has proposed constructing 106 wind turbines on the bay to produce about 381.6 megawatts of energy, or enough to power about 125,000 homes.

The firm applied for permits to raise several meteorological towers to measure wind capacity and other data to pave the way for an eventual wind-turbine park. Delsea proposed the project for the upper part of the Delaware Bay because of environmental concerns over a wind farm in the lower section of the bay.

But the DEP has concerns about a wind-turbine project anywhere in the bay.

Brubaker stressed his letter was not a formal denial, merely “a courtesy” to Delsea so that it did not spend millions of dollars, only to be rejected.

“It would be unreasonable to expect the department to change its opinion,” Brubaker said Tuesday, though he added later, “We’ve made clear we’re not prejudging their application.”

A 2009 DEP report Brubaker sent to Delsea cites potential threats a wind farm would pose to bald eagles, waterfowl, raptors and shorebirds such as the endangered red knot in southern New Jersey.

Many conservationists regard the Delaware Bayshore region as the most crucial stopover point for migratory birds on the northern Atlantic Flyway.

The Atlantic Flyway Council urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a July 28 letter to consider wind turbines at other sites where there are fewer threats to birds. Delaware environmental officials also are concerned about effects on shellfish and migratory birds, according to Brubaker.

Delsea has sought to sway state officials to at least let them make a case for the wind park. The firm has retained former DEP commissioner Brad Campbell as its lead representative. Campbell said Delsea is simply applying for meteorological towers now — an application still under review — and wants the project evaluated on its merits.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, held a meeting June 11 in his statehouse office with DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello, some of his top deputies — including Brubaker — and Delsea leaders to discuss the project.

Campbell and Sweeney’s roles drew criticism Tuesday when the whistleblowers support group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, accused them of pressuring DEP leaders to overrule their scientists’ opposition to the wind park. PEER obtained several documents showing the DEP’s opposition to wind power in the bay, as well as an Aug. 25 e-mail from Campbell to Brubaker’s boss, Mauriello.

Campbell wrote that he had expected a discussion about technical concerns, not a reaffirmation of opposition to wind power in the bay, and he asked for clarification.

“When you and I spoke, you said to expect a letter from land use suggesting a meeting to review technical concerns about the Delsea monitoring application,” Campbell wrote Mauriello. “What I received instead is a letter from Scott reiterating the position (DEP land use director) Tom Micai took at the first meeting, i.e. that DEP has sufficient data to declare the Delaware Bay off limits to wind. …”

Campbell confirmed the e-mail was authentic. He characterized it and the June 11 meeting — as well as a June 29 meeting he held with conservationist critics of the wind park — as standard operating procedure.

“This has been the most transparent and above-board permitting process there can be,” Campbell said.

Bill Wolfe, a former DEP adviser to Campbell who now runs PEER’s New Jersey chapter, said the private meetings were antithetical to the premises of open government.

“Sweeney has a committee,” Wolfe said. “He could hold a hearing. He doesn’t need to do it behind closed doors. It’s an inherently strong-armed tactic.”

Sweeney said the June 11 meeting was not unusual and that he did the same thing when Fishermen’s Energy was proposing a similar-sized wind park off the Atlantic Coast. In the Delsea case, he was dealing with a project off the coast of his district, he said. He and Delsea’s representatives had grown frustrated they weren’t getting an explanation for DEP’s objection to wind power in the bay.

“It’s a large area,” Sweeney said. “There’s a lot of wind. The wind can knock you down there. And Downe Township is 75 percent preserved. If there’s a chance to create some economic development and a chance for ecotourism — you know, if you go to Atlantic City, you can’t not look at those things. It was a fact-finding issue for me. I was surprised the DEP would turn something down without saying why. I think it was very unprofessional.”

Delsea’s application for meteorological towers remains under review. The firm has not yet applied to the DEP for a wind park.