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Around 50 people attended Wednesday’s wind farm forum at the Agate Beach Best Western in person, while another 40 or so tuned in via Zoom, and others submitted written testimony. (Photo by Mathew Brock)

There are many reasons members of the fishing industry and coastal community are against a federally-backed effort to create wind farms off the Oregon coast, but most agree their main issue with the project is its flawed process for determining where to place such a facility.

Around 100 people attended a forum Wednesday afternoon organized by Rep. David Gomberg, Rep. David Brock Smith and Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawler’s Cooperative.

More than half the attendees showed up in-person at the conference room of the Agate Beach Best Western, while the rest tuned in via Zoom or wrote in testimony. Mann said there were many others who would have attended, were they not out on the water fishing in the very areas being discussed.

Gomberg described the event as a “listening session” and said his goal was to provide a forum where members of the fishing industry could get their concerns about the project on record while testimony about the project is still being collected by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. He has similar events planned for Charleston, Astoria and Brookings throughout following weeks.

Dozens spoke during the three-hour meeting, from multi-generational fishing families and fishing industry veterans to coastal residents and associated business owners standing in solidarity with other members of the coastal community.

Most were quick to explain their personal issues with the prospect of constructing a wind farm in one of two “call areas” identified by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management off the coasts of Coos and Curry counties in March, often highlighting environmental concerns and an unknown economic impact that could result from losing access to fishing grounds within those areas. A common concern was that the federal government was trying to force a new industry onto the Oregon coast at the expense of an existing one.

“I would be curious as to why they feel the necessity to displace hundreds of businesses that are already active in this area and try to put theirs in the middle of it,” Jeff Molfino, a broker with Pacific Seafood, said. “It’s like they’re trying to put a specialty grocery store in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. But the businesses they want to displace with this are longtime, multi-generational family businesses.”

The call areas are wide swathes of open ocean outlined off the coast of Coos and Curry counties that will be winnowed down to find a suitable area to house a 3 gigawatt wind farm. To do so, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is accepting public comment until May 27 and reaching out to communities and entities that may be affected by the project, including municipalities and other entities on the Oregon coast.

The Oregon Legislature has set a goal to generate 3 gigawatts of power using offshore wind farms by 2030, while the Biden administration is looking to generate 10 times that amount across the entire country by the same date.

While a spokesperson from the bureau previously told the News-Times it’s far too early in the process to describe how big a facility of that capacity would be or what it would look like, one of the largest operational wind farms in the world, the United Kingdom’s Hornsea One, has a 1.2 gigawatt capacity with 174 turbines that take up around 1,830 square miles of open ocean.

The two call areas, winnowed down from an initial three, aren’t the set-in-stone future home of the project, but rather an outlined area used to facilitate a “call for information” to determine where space for a wind farm could be leased to companies without significant impact. The eliminated call area between Bandon and Port Orford, for example, was struck from the running based on feedback the bureau received.

But those who have taken the time to examine the bureau’s process have some major concerns, primarily that the bureau’s process “puts the cart before the horse” by offering companies interested in developing a wind farm a lease before conducting up to 5 years worth of environmental and economic impact studies that will effect whether or not the project can proceed.

“We have to prove right now that we’re towing in the call areas, but they don’t have to prove anything,” Mann said. “They don’t have to prove these things are safe, that they’re not going to hurt birds or whales. They don’t have any of the burden of proof, that’s all on us. That’s why they don’t do an (environmental impact study) up front.”

Mann said the process seems designed to sink money into the project before the impacts are known by requiring companies to invest into a lease, usually a multi-million dollar expense, before doing any studies needed to determine the impacts.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management published an outline of its leasing process, copies of which were available at the forum. The process begins with planning and analysis by establishing call areas and getting feedback to winnow it down to a fraction of the initial space. It then moves on to the leasing phase, putting the area up for bid to any interested companies. Once a lease is negotiated, a site assessment is required, which includes environmental and economic impact studies. Once those studies are complete, the lease holder can begin design work and eventually construction. The whole process is expected to take between 5 and 10 years.

The only comparable project on the Oregon coast, the PacWave South wave energy testing facility off the coast of Lincoln County, took 10 years of environmental studies and review before it was granted a lease to begin construction last year. PacWave South will have four testing berths connected to the shore by seven miles of subsea cable, a far smaller facility than whatever the final design of a wind farm may look like.

Some specific concerns raised at the forum include the unknown effects wind turbines may have on wildlife, the financial impact the loss of fishing grounds might have on Oregon communities, cleanup plans for if the project fails or is retired, and the effect it may have on research operations on the Oregon coast that take place within the call areas.

An example of the latter, the National Atmospheric Association Administration conducts research trawls within the call areas to help determine the health of various marine populations, and some at the forum were concerned those operations might be interrupted.

Some were concerned the project may be similar to Oregon State University’s Totem buoy, a project from the 1960s that collapsed and sank off the coast of Lincoln County, debris from which many attending say create hazards for fishing boats in the area to this day. The comparison left many wondering what the project’s eventual decommission plan would be.

Safety was another concern, many wondering if wind turbines could survive the harsh conditions of the Oregon coast and if their presence could affect U.S. Coast Guard rescue operations if nearby boats were in trouble. Would rescuers need to take a detour around the wind farm’s waters or would they be able to travel through?

People also questioned claims that the project would be “green” or “energy efficient,” pointing to the manufacturing, transport and maintenance of the wind turbines as carbon producers themselves.

Gomberg ended the forum by asking all those attending to continue providing input, both to government agencies involved with the project and local and state representatives. He provided a handout with the contact information of various elected officials, many of whom had staff attending the forum in-person or via Zoom.

Those with comments about the project can contact the Oregon Department of Energy at https://odoe.powerappsportals.us/en-US/ or via information provided by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at https://www.boem.gov/renewable-energy/state-activities/Oregon.

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