Criticized for underpublicizing a request for developers to build windmills over more than 2,000 nautical square miles — including parts of the Georges Bank fishing grounds — the federal government has extended the public comment period for the controversial project.
The 30-day extension for public comments on the wind development project off the southern New England coast now expires March 30, according to the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The locale for the wind energy grid, selected in consultation with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the limited initial notice for the hearings brought complaints from the fishing industry, Congress and the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick.
The complaints noted the overlap of windmill plots on the fish-rich Georges Bank, the Northwest Atlantic's most fertile harvesting water.
U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank, and Gov. Deval Patrick all wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Feb. 22, a week before comments were initially pegged to close Feb. 28. All urged an extension for the comment period.
Lisa Capone, a spokeswoman for Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said the office would convene a fisheries work group "in early March" to explore the problems of mixing anchored wind generators in the prime fishing grounds for the New England and Middle Atlantic fleets.
Sullivan emphasized the need for both industries.
"We recognize that the fishing industry and others have raised a number of issues regarding the federal leasing process, and it makes sense to address those questions," Sullivan said.
The northernmost plots are within 12 miles of both Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and many more are within 20 miles of the islands, and take up at least 20 miles across the open water to the islands' south.
The request for interest in developing wind power within the selected site was issued in late December.
The invitation for submissions of interest came just as the long and intensively fought Cape Wind project — the first in Massachusetts waters, covering a light-bulb-shaped, 25-square-mile sector centered between Cape Cod, the Vineyard and Nantucket — was receiving its final permits.
The area of the potential wind power site coming from the Department of Interior begins about 12 nautical miles south of the islands and extends some 31 nautical miles south to the 60-meter depth contour.
"A half billion dollars worth of seafood comes out of this area," said New Hampshire commercial fisherman David Goethel, who attended a briefing on the project in East Boston as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council's Habitat Committee.
"Georges Bank and the Nantucket Lightship area are critical fishing grounds for northeastern fishermen and they must be protected for future generations," the delegation of federal lawmakers wrote. "We were troubled to learn that many our constituents were unaware of this proposal until the Department of Interior recently held a hearing in New Bedford ... on Feb. 16 with the comment period ending only 12 days later on Feb. 28.
"Additionally, we feel that the bureau did not adequately consult with the fishing industry or even the federal fisheries regulators prior to drafting their map," the lawmakers wrote.
The bureau's website, http://www.boemre.gov, contains the public information about the project, a subset of a vast federal effort to add significant wind-generated electricity to the mix produced via nuclear, coal, oil and water turbine power.
The overall federal project targets U.S. waters off California, Oregon, Washington, Delaware, New Jersey, Florida, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Hawaii, and Rhode Island.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.