By MADDY VITALE
Hundreds of people packed a public forum Wednesday night to strongly criticize plans for offshore wind energy projects that they suspect are causing a series of whale deaths along New Jersey and other coastal states.
One thing was clear after speaker after speaker denounced the projects: Cape May County officials and residents clearly do not want wind farm energy off the coast.
The Danish energy company Orsted plans to build the project, the first wind energy farm along the New Jersey coast, 15 miles offshore between Atlantic City and Stone Harbor.
The public voiced concerns during the forum at the Ocean City Tabernacle that the towering 98 wind turbines proposed off the coast would harm tourism, commercial fishing operations and the environment, specifically marine life and migratory bird patterns.
The director of the Cape May County Board of Commissioners, Leonard Desiderio, and Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian joined at the Ocean City Tabernacle to listen to what the community had to say about the wind farm project. They assured the public that the county stands united against the project until there are more answers to the short and long term effects of offshore wind technology.
“We are not against wind farms and renewable energy,” said Desiderio, who also serves as the mayor of Sea Isle City. “This has been pushed through, rushed at a fast pace. We want to put the brakes on. We need to slow down and get all of the facts.”
The county has been working with Ocean City for many months now to challenge the process at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities used by Orsted to set aside home rule. This informational session was to be one of several planned, officials said.
Gillian also said that there needs to be some answers.
“We seem to have a lot of opinions. Tonight is about getting information out. I ask everyone to take time to listen,” Gillian said.
Like Desiderio, Gillian noted that his “biggest frustration” was not being able to get all of the facts. He added that is one of the consequences when something is “done so fast.”
In advance of the forum, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a statement Wednesday refuting claims that the wind farm projects are to blame for the whale deaths that have been occurring since December. Some of the opponents of the wind farm project believe that sonar mapping for the projects could be to blame for the whale deaths.
“As of March 2023, no offshore wind-related construction activities have taken place in waters off the New Jersey coast, and DEP is aware of no credible evidence that offshore wind-related survey activities could cause whale mortality,” the statement said.
At the public forum, the overwhelming majority of speakers from the community said that they oppose the wind farm project.
Bob DiIorio, of Seaville and formerly a Sea Isle City resident, suggested that voters should decide the fate of offshore wind projects in a public referendum.
“Halt any further offshore wind turbines until November. Place a question on the New Jersey ballot. Let the voters decide on the future of offshore wind projects,” DiIorio said to applause. “It is our state. Let’s respect it. Protect and enjoy its natural beauty. We pray that God will protect our oceans and all life for future generations.”
Ocean City resident and environmental advocate Donna Moore said she opposes the wind farm project.
“We need alternative energy, green energy. But we need to be smart,” Moore said. “Let’s choose and present viable options in contrast to the Orsted project.”
Sen. Michael Testa, whose First Legislative District includes the Cape May County shore communities, said he objects to the project and how it has been forced on the county.
“There are far better alternatives than this that won’t be killing our whales and be an eyesore,” Testa said amid resounding applause from the audience.
Ocean City resident and Board of Education member Robin Shaffer called what is going on a “tragedy.”
“I want to thank our elected officials, the mayors and staff for their support,” Shaffer said. “We need that. All of you need to file lawsuits and slow things down.”
Former Ocean City Councilman Michael DeVlieger has been an outspoken critic against the wind farm project since 2019, when Orsted first held a public forum about its plan.
He said that the deaths of whales and dolphins are a tragedy. He said he believes there is a direct link between the death of the mammals and the Orsted project.
“If you don’t think there is causation between the whales and the dolphins dying and Orsted’s work out at sea right now, your head is in the sand,” DeVlieger said. He finished by saying, “Do not let the deaths of the whales and dolphins go without a porpoise.”
Orsted filed petitions in recent months to run a transmission line through Ocean City and Marmora to connect the offshore wind turbines to the land-based electric grid at the former B.L. England power plant in Upper Township. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities granted approval for the transmission line.
Despite the objections of both the county and Ocean City, as well as those of the Office of New Jersey Rate Counsel, the BPU pushed aside the elected officials of the county and Ocean City in favor of Orsted, county officials said.
Cape May County Special Counsel Michael Donohue asserted in a presentation that the BPU should not have approved the plan. He showed simulations of turbines off the coast that would be visible from Ocean City. One image depicts the turbines seen on the horizon from the historic Flanders Hotel.
In recent months, lawmakers have asked that there be a 90-day moratorium on offshore wind farm projects to see if the whales will stop washing up dead. However, Orsted continues to move along with its plan.
Orsted is going through the permitting and government review process at this time. The proposed 1,100-megawatt project is expected to come online in 2024 and be fully operational by 2025 to provide power to 500,000 homes, Orsted said.
Donohue said there is a “long list” of concerns about the project, namely what it could do to marine mammals, tourism and Cape May County as a whole.
Cape May County’s tourism could be impacted greatly by a wind farm project, Donohue said. He cited statistics from Cape May County Director of Tourism Diane Wieland that it could result in a loss of visitor spending of $993 million over eight years.
“We don’t know why the whales are dying,” Donohue said, noting that in the past, it was a big deal when just one dead whale washed ashore. “It was rare. We have a sense this is unusual.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine have stated that most of the whale deaths on the East Coast are a result of vessel strikes after examining the carcasses and finding wounds consistent with being struck by ships.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a strong supporter of offshore wind technology, wants New Jersey to become a leader in green energy. So far, New Jersey has approved three offshore wind farms and is looking to add more. Murphy’s goal is to have offshore wind farms producing 11,000 megawatts of power in New Jersey by 2040.