Secretary of Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles said his office has been working with Excelerate Energy and Suez Energy North America, the two LNG companies proposing ports off Gloucester, to release some of their mitigation money soon, though no target date was available yesterday.
"We've heard from the community in Gloucester that there was some hope mitigation funds would start to flow early," said Robert Keough, a spokesman for Bowles. "We've taken that concern to the proponents of the projects and those discussions are underway."
While he would not comment on the direction the companies might go, Keough described the discussions as "productive."
Douglas Pizzi, a spokesman for Excelerate, said the company, based in The Woodlands, Texas, has released $35,000 to a local nonprofit organization which will buy and lease fishing leases from fishermen who want to get out of the business to keep the leases local.
"They approached us with some seed money and we approved it," Pizzi said.
As for the time line for the release of the remainder of the money - $12.6 million in total for the Gloucester nonprofit - Pizzi said, "As we get our license and as we begin construction, those details will begin to emerge."
Suez is also meeting with state officials to figure out when and how to distribute the aid.
"We understand the need for immediate funding for certain people, especially the fishermen," said Julie Vitek, a spokeswoman for Suez. "We've had preliminary discussions with the secretary's office, and we need to have more detailed discussions with the local community and state officials to determine specifics."
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he has not yet been involved with the discussions, but is encouraged the mitigation money could start flowing soon.
"We've been trying to expedite it because with all the threats facing the industry, I'm trying to get some dollars soon for some extra days to fish," he said.
With rolling closures set to begin next week in the inshore area, starting around Plymouth and Cape Cod and moving northward throughout the spring and early summer, having a portion of the mitigation package soon could help fishermen stalled during the closure.
"It wouldn't hurt to get some money earlier," said Vito Calomo, executive director of the Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Commission. "They're going to be shut down and it couldn't come at a better time."
Bowles' predecessor, Robert Golledge Jr., ordered a total of $47 million in mitigation from the two companies when he issued them environmental certificates on Dec. 1 and 12.
The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Museum, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem and Essex National Heritage Center will each receive $150,000 under the mitigation plan.
As a requirement of the environmental certificates the state issued each project in December, the companies must pay a total of $1.5 million for management of right whales and $6.5 million for an acoustic buoy system in Massachusetts Bay to locate whales.
Pizzi said yesterday Excelerate is ready to start construction of that buoy system, and is working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Excelerate proposed its Northeast Gateway Energy Bridge 13 miles southeast off Gloucester and hopes to have it running by the end of this year. Suez proposed its Neptune port seven miles southeast off Gloucester and aims to have it operational by the end of 2009.
Fishermen and their supporters oppose the location of the two ports, which will be in the northern portion of a fertile piece of ocean called Block 125. The tankers that dock with the natural gas buoys there will have an 800-yard security perimeter and fishermen fear they will be shut out of that area completely.
Environmentalists oppose the ports because they worry the tankers will strike and kill endangered North Atlantic right whales in the area, and that construction of an underwater pipeline could disturb groundfish protected under federal rebuilding plans.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney approved both projects and the conditions Golledge attached on Dec. 19 as he was authorized to do under federal law as a governor of the state adjacent to the location of the projects.
Suez received its license to operate from the U.S. Maritime Administration this month and Excelerate is expected to receive its license soon. Both projects are awaiting a permit from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a dredging permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to be used during construction, and two state permits for coastal management.
Where the money is going
When he issued environmental certificates for both LNG projects in December, former Secretary of Environmental Affairs Robert Golledge Jr. attached a $47 million mitigation package that includes some of the following beneficiaries:
* $12.6 million to a local nonprofit to be created to buy and lease permits of Gloucester fishermen who decide to go out of business.
* $10.6 million for improvements to the islands in Boston Harbor.
* $6.5 million to build a passive acoustic buoy system to detect and monitor whales.
* $3.4 million to compensate commercial lobstermen.
* $3 million to map and study the activities and habitats of the sea floor.
* $150,000 to the Gloucester Marine Heritage Center.
* $150,000 to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.
* $150,000 to the Essex National Heritage Center.