A decision on the fate of what would be the first offshore wind farm in the United States is expected from the federal government in the next several weeks.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he's ready to decide whether a private developer can install 130 wind turbines off Cape Cod, Mass. But as the government gets closer to a decision, after nearly nine years of review, the intensity of the debate is increasing.
'State Of Indecision'
"I think the worst thing we can do for the country is to be in a state of indecision, and this [project] has been in a state of indecision for a long time," Salazar said recently, on his first visit to the proposed site.
Cape Cod is the arm-shaped peninsula that extends out from Massachusetts. The developers of the proposed project, called Cape Wind, say the closest 440-foot-tall turbine would be five miles to its south in Nantucket Sound.
It's shallow there, less than a foot deep in some places, which is one of the reasons Cape Wind officials insist it's the region's best location for an offshore wind farm.
Whether that's true or not is now up to Salazar. And no matter what he decides about this project, Salazar says offshore wind power is coming to the United States.
"As I've always said with respect to renewable energy on the onshore, it's important to do wind energy in the right places," he said. "And that is the critical question that we are addressing here at Nantucket Sound."
Threat To Tourism
For the past year, Cape Wind has been on a winning streak with court victories, state approvals and a mostly favorable environmental impact statement from the federal government.
Mark Rodgers, the communications director for Cape Wind, says that since it first was announced in 2001, the billion-dollar project has garnered strong statewide support with its promise to meet two-thirds of the Cape's electricity needs, while offering energy independence and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
"Cape Wind has wider and deeper support than any energy project in the history of New England," Rodgers says. Leading environmental organizations, trade associations, labor unions and much of the general public all endorse the project, he adds.
But most local officials oppose its location in an area used by fishermen and boaters, and the local Chamber of Commerce says Cape Wind is a threat to the region's only industry — tourism.
Opposition From American Indians
Until his death last year, the most prominent opponent was Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose family life on Nantucket Sound was well-documented. Now the loudest voice against the project comes from two local American Indian tribes.
"We are the Wampanoag, 'People of the First Light,' and it's our responsibility to greet that day," says Bettina Washington, the historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head on the island of Martha's Vineyard.
Washington says the project would infringe on the tribe's religious and cultural rights by interfering with its view of the rising sun, and it also may disturb archaeological evidence of tribal life.
"The waters now cover what we know were ancestral homelands that we walked," says Washington. "We lived there, we went to the edge of those shores to fish, and we interred our dead in those lands that are now covered by water."
The strong American Indian opposition may present the final hurdle for the project. Last fall, the Wampanoag successfully petitioned to have Nantucket Sound declared eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which makes the permitting process more difficult.
Salazar met with the tribes for a sunrise ceremony during his visit to the Cape. He says he's taking their concerns seriously as he wades through all the issues, with an eye toward releasing his decision sometime in April.