Final approval for Cape Wind is stalled, aggravating developers of the Massachusetts offshore wind project and igniting concerns that the latest roadblock -- over American Indian ceremonies -- could jeopardize other ocean-based energy proposals.
The 130-turbine project appeared to be sailing toward federal consent after the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service issued a supportive environmental report in January, about eight years after the pioneering project was announced. A decision could have come 30 days later.
But spring, and then summer, passed without approval. Cape Wind Associates, the Boston-based group pursuing the project, expected to receive the nation's first seafloor lease months ago.
Now, no one is sure when the final decision will come, or whether it will demand that the developers relocate the wind farm to a different site or alter the plan in other ways.
"There's great concern. It should have been finished months ago," said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, noting that the delay is disrupting efforts to arrange construction contracts, line up installation barges and find buyers for the anticipated electricity.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act is causing the setback. It is one consideration among a multitude of factors that have been parsed, researched and reparsed before the federal government will grant its maiden lease for an offshore wind facility on the outer continental shelf.
Cape Wind supporters assert that "106" won't sink the project, saying reams of existing research, including the government's 800-page final environmental impact statement, have established that the facility's clean power benefits outweigh its negative impacts.
Turbines would disrupt sacred sunrise and burial sites
Two Indian tribes, however, say Section 106 demands that the planned field of 440-foot-tall turbines be abandoned in order to comply with the law. It protects artifacts and areas where cultural ceremonies are practiced.
The Wampanoag tribes, or the "People of First Light," say sprawling Nantucket Sound -- hundreds of square miles of ocean -- must provide an unobstructed view of the rising sun in order for the tribes to continue ceremonies that are centuries old. They want the federal government to designate the sound as a "traditional cultural property" and prohibit the project from being built there.
Among the claims is that Horseshoe Shoal, the shallow underwater plateau into which the turbines' shafts would be sunk 80 feet into sandy seafloor, is an Indian burial site long ago enveloped by the ocean. The Wampanoag say their oral history reaching thousands of years into the past points to the shoal as a place where early relatives hunted, lived and died.
"It is a place where our ancestors are buried," said George "Chuckie" Green, a historical officer for the tribe. "It is a place that is principal to our practices. An unobstructed view of the eastern sun is paramount to our religion."
The latest obstacle in the project's approval process is a sensitive topic. Other concerns have been overcome by mitigating the impact on birds, marine life and the safety of boaters. Supporters question why the tribes didn't raise their concerns years ago, and suggest that they have become a tool of delay used by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the well-funded opposition group.
"If feels a bit like a 'Gotcha,' an intentional effort to extend the process," said Sue Reid, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. "It seems there's at least some likelihood that it is deliberate that those properties weren't identified earlier, and that's unfortunate."
MMS 'failing miserably' with Indians
Green dismissed accusations that the alliance is providing legal support to his tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag. But he acknowledged that he works closely with the alliance, which has financially benefited from influential members associated with the fossil fuel industry. William Koch, an alliance director and owner of Oxbow Corp., an energy company that provides coal to utilities, has given generously.
"I'm in constant contact with them," Green said of the alliance. "Their reasons are different, but their goal is the same."
He added that the Minerals Management Service is acting rashly, speeding toward what he believes is a conclusion that will strip his tribe, which has been on Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard for 9,000 years, of sacred sites.
The MMS declined to comment publicly on the process.
The other tribe involved, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said in a letter to MMS this summer that the agency is "failing miserably" to involve the tribes in the Section 106 process.
"The Nantucket Sound viewscape is essential to our spiritual well-being and the Cape Wind project will destroy this sacred site," says the letter, written by Bettina Washington, the tribal historic preservation officer.
Cape Wind supporters privately accuse the Gay Head tribe of hypocrisy. The tribe received $50,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to study the feasibility of constructing a small wind farm on its land on Martha's Vineyard. Critics say it would obscure their sight of the sun. Washington couldn't be reached for comment.
State heads butting heads
The conflict has divided state agencies. Brona Simon, executive director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, said in a letter last winter that MMS was favoring Cape Wind over tribal concerns. She said the agency needs to exercise an "explicit effort" to weigh other options, such as requiring Cape Wind to move into deeper water by using floating turbines.
"The [MMS] analysis gives the sense that the proposed project schedule and project profitability are given more weight than the consideration of avoiding or minimizing adverse effects to historic properties," Simon wrote.
Meanwhile, the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and key lawmakers urged MMS to reject the tribes' request to designate Nantucket Sound a protected landmark. Ian Bowles, the state secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said in a July letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the request "is an attempt to block or further delay renewable energy development in Nantucket Sound."
If the tribes' request is granted, it could rattle the infant offshore wind industry in the United States, observers and participants say. The legal precedent could prevent or delay offshore projects up and down the East Coast. It also poses hazards to Massachusetts' efforts to zone specific areas of the ocean for renewable energy projects.
"It would have a huge chilling effect," said Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation. "That would effectively put the kibosh on offshore wind development at the same time Massachusetts is moving forward with an ocean management plan."
Samples taken; no evidence of ancestors
The challenge comes as East Coast states are joining forces to rearrange the way the federal government looks at renewable energy. They want more money spent on a new underwater grid able to send offshore wind power to some of the nation's most populated coastlines.
Jim Gordon of Cape Wind Associates said it's "troubling" that the tribes are fighting a wind farm that could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to the rising seas that threaten their sacred coastal sites.
"If the Wampanoags succeed, this will provide a serious obstacle for not only the offshore renewable energy industry but for many other local and national coastal and marine activities," he added.
Section 106 strives to have key players sign a memorandum of agreement. One stipulation in the memo, which has not been signed, requires Cape Wind to extract sediment samples at the site of every turbine to check for artifacts and human remains. Other samples were taken years ago as part of the archaeological requirements. No evidence has been found, according to Cape Wind officials.
Yet the Wampanoag people seem to put more faith in the oral history handed down from generation to generation than in core samples taken from the sprawling ocean bed. Eight years of deliberation over a wind farm doesn't seem long to them.
"Whether an item is stolen or a sacred site is destroyed, they are gone from our people and our culture forever," Washington of the tribe in Gay Head said in her letter.