Published November 02, 2009
MASHPEE, Mass. – From a blustery perch over a Cape Cod beach, Chuckie Green gestures toward a stretch of horizon where he says construction of the nation's first offshore wind farm would destroy his Indian tribe's religion.
The Wampanoag — the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims in the 17th century and known as "The People of the First Light" — practice sacred rituals requiring an unblocked view of the sunrise. That view won't exist once 130 turbines, each over 400 feet tall, are built in Nantucket Sound, visible to Wampanoag in Mashpee and on Martha's Vineyard.
Tribal rituals, including dancing and chanting, take place at secret sacred sites around the sound at various times, such as the summer and winter solstices and when an elder passes.
The Wampanoag fight to preserve their ceremonies has become the latest obstacle — some say delay tactic — for a pioneering wind energy project that seemed at the cusp of final approval.
"We, the Wampanoag people, who opened our arms and allowed people to come here for religious freedoms, are now being threatened with our religion being taken away for the profits of one single group of investors," Green said.
The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag claim Nantucket Sound is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property. The tribes say the designation, which would come with new regulations for activity on the sound, is needed to preserve not only their pristine views but ancestors' remains buried on Horseshoe Shoal, where the turbines would be built.
Cape Wind supporters say the tribes' claim for a National Register listing for the sound is baseless and was sprung late, in league with the project's most vociferous opponents, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.
"I think this is clearly a tactic for delay, for delay's sake," said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind. "I think it's fair to say, looking at the past eight years, that opponents to Cape Wind have tried every conceivable strategy to slow down or stop the project."
Green bristles at the notion that the tribes, prodded by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, are jumping in late just to gum up the works. Green and Audra Parker, the alliance's executive director, said the alliance supports the Wampanoags' claim, but didn't engineer it.
Cape Wind, proposed in 2001 and expected to cost $1 billion, aims to provide up to 75 percent of Cape Cod's power. Other offshore wind farm proposals are in earlier stages of development in several states, including Rhode Island, Delaware and Texas.
Cape Wind opponents say it would be a hazard to aviation, harm the environment — including fish and bird life — and mar historic vistas. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose family compound would be in view of the project, fought the project until his death, saying it was a triumph of special interests over state interests.
A major decision on the Wampanoag claim is due within two weeks.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service, the lead agency reviewing the proposed wind farm, has recommended that the sound is not eligible for the National Register to Brona Simon, head of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Simon must decide by Nov. 12 if she disagrees. If so, the claim would be sent to the National Parks Service for a final ruling within 45 days.
A parks service decision that the sound should be listed a Traditional Cultural Property wouldn't kill Cape Wind, but it could add months to the approval process by forcing developers to comply with the designation's various standards.
Simon declined comment through a spokesman for the Massachusetts Secretary of State, which has jurisdiction over her office.
Earlier this year, in a letter to the minerals service, Simon criticized federal review of the project, saying it appeared to value Cape Wind's profitability and schedule over "effects to historic properties."
Barbara Hill of Clean Power Now, an advocacy group that supports Cape Wind, said the entire offshore wind industry would suffer if Simon decides more review of the tribal claim is needed.
"If there is going to be an allowance to this type of viewshed issue, as far as the eyes can see, what are we going to build?" she said.
Cape Wind appeared close to final approval in January when the minerals service concluded the project posed no major environmental problems. If the tribes win their claim, say project supporters, there would be a host of unintended consequences.
Two Massachusetts environmental and economic development officials, Ian Bowles and Greg Bialecki, produced a list of commercial activities — from commercial fishing to sand mining — they said would be hurt by the ensuing new regulations. They also argued the Supreme Court has ruled that a vast, unenclosed body of water such as the 560-square mile Nantucket Sound isn't eligible as a Traditional Cultural Property.
"It seems clear that this request for such a designation, coming at this time, is an attempt to block or further delay renewable energy development in Nantucket Sound," their letter said.
Green said the tribes have objected for years to the effect the project would have on their culture. Regulators, he said, have never met requirements to thoroughly address those concerns — including the pending claim about the sound — or to seriously consider an alternative site for the wind farm, which the tribes and the alliance favor.
"I don't expect anything from this, except for due process," Green said. "And I have not received due process."