FAA Facing Investigation Over Cape Wind Approval
By: Michael C. Bailey
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound has launched a new effort to stop the development of Cape Wind, this one taking aim at allegations a key federal agency signed off on the project amidst political pressure.
“[The Federal Aviation Administration] has made decisions based on political factors rather than the recommendations of the local aviation community and even its own employees, failing its statutory safety-first mandate,” Audra Parker, president and CEO of the alliance wrote in a letter sent to the US Department of Transportation’s inspector general.
In a similar letter sent last month to Michael Huerta, acting administrator for the FAA, Ms. Parker said the FAA, in issuing in 2010 a “determination of no hazard” for the proposed wind farm, “ignored the warnings of the local aviation community, including airplane pilots, regional airports, and airline owners that the proposed Cape Wind project would pose unacceptable risks to the safety of local pilots and passengers.”
“It’s clear that the [FAA] based its previous decision of the safety of the Cape Wind project on politics—not on the best interests of pilots and passengers,” Ms. Parker said in a press release. “The FAA needs to halt any further deliberations on this project pending an investigation into the role political pressure has played in their review of this project.”
Congressman Cliff Stearns (R - Florida) is now calling for such an investigation of the FAA, to be conducted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and/or the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“It appears that an investigation is warranted in the case of Cape Wind to determine if the FAA acted inappropriately due to political pressure from the (Obama) Administration,” Rep. Stearns said in a statement released to the media.
Mark Rodgers, director of communications for Cape Wind, refuted the accusation that the FAA had caved in to pressure from the Obama Administration as it pursues its renewable energy agenda.
“The FAA has been studying Cape Wind for a decade that has spanned two different administrations of different political parties,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Over the course of that time the FAA has, on three separate occasions, issued Cape Wind with a ‘determination of no hazard,’ twice during the Bush Administration.”
During a typical FAA review, a project is automatically given a “determination of hazard” finding as a default status, with a no-hazard finding coming after a formal review.
Mr. Rodgers also denied that Cape Wind somehow influenced the FAA. “Cape Wind’s role during these agency proceedings has been as the project applicant and we have supplied the FAA with information they have requested of us.”
Politics Over Safety?
The alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request for internal FAA documents about the agency’s review of the project, and in reviewing those documents “made decisions based on political factors rather than the recommendations of the pilots, who use this airspace every day, thereby, failing to discharge FAA’s statutory safety-first mandate,” Ms. Parker wrote.
In October 2011 the US Court of Appeals ruled that the FAA had failed to fully consider the air travel hazard potential of the Cape Cod Wind Farm project. As a result, the FAA’s original determination of no hazard for the wind farm—which indicated that the 440-foot-tall turbines would not pose a risk to air traffic, assuming the developers implemented specific safeguards and mitigation measures—was vacated. The FAA is conducting a new review.
“This aeronautical study revealed that the structure would have no substantial adverse effect on the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace by aircraft or on the operation of air navigation facilities,” the FAA stated in the nine-page ruling issued in May 2010.
Mr. Rodgers said that position has support among actual users of the Nantucket Sound airspace, most notably State Senator Daniel A. Wolf (D - Harwich), founder of Cape Air, “the largest commercial user of the airspace over Nantucket Sound.
He also pointed to two decades of practical experience with offshore wind farms in Europe. “Forty-five offshore wind farms have been built in Europe in the past 20 years that have safely coexisted with air navigation,” Mr. Rodgers said.
“When making the approach to Copenhagen International Airport, airplanes pass right by an offshore wind farm built 12 years ago that is clearly visible to aircraft passengers, and there have been no reported problems.”
However, Ms. Parker said the FAA review “erroneously focused exclusively on whether the turbines met the technical definition of obstruction (e.g. whether they exceeded 500 feet) without considering separately whether they would interfere with air navigation,” namely due to the facility’s potential effect on air traffic control systems.
The FAA stated in its report that it “considered and analyzed the impact on existing and proposed arrival, departure, and en route procedures for aircraft operating under both visual flight rules and instrument flight rules; the impact on all existing and planned public-use airports, military airports and aeronautical facilities; and the cumulative impact resulting from the studied structure when combined with the impact of other existing or proposed structures.”
A December 2006 e-mail from Cape TRACON, air traffic control at Massachusetts Military Reservation, claims the turbine would “have an adverse impact on our operation.” Cape TRACON specifically listed concerns that the turbines would have on radar signals, causing false readings and “clutter” (visual static on radar screens) that obscure targets not equipped with transponders.
A response from the FAA said any formal objections by Cape TRACON would be “scrutinized at the highest level.”
Among the documents cited by the alliance as proof that the FAA was under “political pressure” to sign off on the project in the wake of US Secretary of the Interior’s Kenneth E. Salazar’s decision to approve the wind farm: several internal FAA e-mails from 2009 that refer to Cape Wind by terms such as “politically sensitive” and “highly political”; and a slide from a May 2010 internal presentation entitled “Political Implications” that notes that Sec. Salazar “has approved this project. The Administration is under pressure to promote green energy production. It would be very difficult politically to refuse approval of this project.”
The FAA approval came with a condition that Cape Wind must pay $1.5 million to modify air traffic control radar systems at the Otis Air National Guard Base, and place another $15 million in escrow for a two-year period, in case the initial modifications prove insufficient and more are required.
The alliance stated that several e-mails to and from the FAA and concerned parties, including Cape TRACON, suggested there was a great deal of “ambiguity and contrary opinions regarding the effectiveness of proposed mitigation.”
One e-mail to the FAA from an unnamed source said the proposed hardware upgrades to air traffic systems would be insufficient to address clutter and false reading issues. “We do not expect that this will be good enough to resolve the wind turbine issue,” the e-mail read.
“You people cannot take the collective word of three engineers (myself, Peter and Ernie) that the [recommended upgrade] will take care of the situation,” the e-mail stated, quoting the response to the FAA. “I hear the bean counters…say that we must ‘get this right’ but nothing is a guarantee. So, if that’s the real case, then tell [Obstruction Evaluation/Airport Airspace Analysis, a division of the FAA] that the wind farm is the worst thing to happen to the FAA’s radar program since SBS,” a reference to a problematic real-time virtual radar system.
The alliance cited passages from several FAA memos that called for a formal provision that would require Cape Wind to cease construction or operations should hardware upgrades and other mitigation prove inadequate, but that provision was not included in the 2010 determination of no hazard.
Mr. Rodgers did not lend much weight to the contrary opinions cited by the alliance, noting, that “there are wind farms installed all across the US, which were similarly adjudicated and approved (by the FAA) without complete agreement on every subject between FAA internal offices.”