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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Federal Government Completes Environmental Review of Dominion’s Offshore Wind Project

Turbines from Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project off Virginia Beach. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

WASHINGTON — Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, which when built will be the largest offshore wind farm in the U.S., drew one step closer to construction after the federal government completed an environmental review of the plans Monday.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s issuance of the final environmental impact statement means the 2.6 gigawatt project continues to be on track for construction to begin early next year, with a completion date in late 2026. The last federal regulatory approval needed for work to start is BOEM’s record of decision, which is expected to be issued this fall.

“The completion of our environmental review marks another step towards a clean energy future — one that benefits communities and co-exists with other ocean users,” said BOEM Director Elizabeth Klein in a statement. “The best available science and knowledge shared by Tribes, other government agencies, local communities, ocean users, industry, environmental organizations and others informed the analyses contained in this document.”

Approved in August 2022 by Virginia’s utility regulators, the State Corporation Commission, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project (CVOW) would consist of 176 wind turbines and three offshore substations located 27 miles off Virginia Beach. It is expected to produce enough electricity to power 1 million homes.

The $9.8 billion project hit a snag last year when the company claimed a performance agreement tied to state approval that would have required the utility rather than customers to pay for additional energy costs if it didn’t produce a certain amount of power was “untenable.” A settlement was eventually reached to remove the requirement while adding ratepayer protections for any cost overruns.

Dominion chair, president and CEO Bob Blue said in a statement Monday that the completion of the environmental review was another “significant milestone” in the company’s efforts to complete the project on time and on budget.

“Regulated offshore wind has many benefits for our customers and local economies — it’s fuel free, emissions free and diversifies our fuel mix to maintain the reliability of the grid,” said Blue.

The final environmental impact statement comes after BOEM issued a draft in December and solicited public comment from tribal nations, local community members, commercial fishing interests and the public. It includes analysis of potential benefits or harms the project could cause for natural resources, local infrastructure, fishing vessels, the economy and other factors, with impacts ranging from negligible to major.

The completion of the environmental review, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, is a “consequential” milestone because of the record it creates of the project’s impact, as well as steps Dominion has committed to take to avoid or minimize any harm, said Kit Kennedy, managing director of climate and clean energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Just the same as if you were building a shopping mall that might impact a wetland, any time you’re putting steel in the ground or steel in the water, there’s going to be an impact,” said Kennedy. “It’s basically a giant encyclopedia of the potential positives and negatives, and what can be done to mitigate the negative impacts.”

The environmental review found CVOW could benefit air quality, the economy and tourism, with over $143 million in economic output annually during construction and almost $210 million annually during operation.

However, federal reviewers found the project could also have major adverse impacts on the North Atlantic right whale, fisheries, wetlands, historic landmarks, and scientific research and surveys.

While the major foraging habitat for the North Atlantic right whale is in Massachusetts, the impact statement notes that the project area lies in a major migration corridor for the species. The loss of even one right whale constitutes a major impact, the review notes.

Following several dead whales washing ashore along the East Coast earlier this year, researchers said a resurgence in humpback whale populations had led them to expand into new areas, including ship lanes. Scientists have also said the deaths are part of an “unusual mortality event” that has been underway since 2016, long before most Atlantic Coast wind development.

One dead right whale that washed up in Virginia Beach earlier this year appeared to have been killed by a vessel strike, according to a necropsy conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Stephanie Milne, a senior environmental manager at RPS Group, an environmental consultant for Dominion, said this July that the utility has a whale spotting program to avoid vessel strikes with the animal while also collecting data on species behaviors that otherwise can be difficult to obtain.

“We’ve had rotating biologists 24 hours a day on this boat, onsite for at least six months,” Milne said during a trip to view CVOW’s first two demonstration turbines. “The power of that data — that’s massive.”

Fisheries impacts have been a key point of tension in CVOW planning. The environmental review found the project could lead to “the temporary or permanent reduction in catch or loss of access to fishing areas due to the presence of construction activities or changes in fish and shellfish populations that are the basis of fishing activities.”

Impacts could also include “abandonment of fishing locations due to difficulty in maneuvering fishing vessels … increased risk of collisions with construction or lay vessels, and fear of damage or loss of deployed gear.”

Some wetlands could be permanently lost through onshore construction activities, the federal government found, while offshore components could impact the view from 712 historic resources, including national historic landmarks First Cape Henry Lighthouse and Eyre Hall, a 17th-century plantation house on the Eastern Shore.

Preservation Virginia, the nonprofit that owns the lighthouse, said in a statement that it supports green energy initiatives and believes the environmental review process is “a proven way to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the impacts to cultural and environmental resources.”

Included with the impact statement is a 158-page document outlining mitigation measures and changes to Dominion’s initial design, including not siting eight turbines near a known fish haven and relocating three turbines from a heavily trafficked area.

Dominion spokesperson Jeremy Slayton said in a statement that the utility has worked with a range of interested parties to identify ways to reduce impacts, including funds to establish and preserve wetlands, compensate fishermen and support historic properties and wildlife studies.

“We have taken significant measures to avoid impacts and mitigate those that are not completely avoided,” Slayton said in an email. “BOEM’s final EIS includes many measures we will take to address those identified impacts.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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