By JAY LINDSAY, Associated Press
BOSTON (AP) — Federal Aviation Administration employees felt political pressure to approve a wind farm planned off Cape Cod and did so amid internal disagreement over the best way to stop the turbines from interfering with radar and compromising airplane safety, according to FAA documents obtained by the project's opponents.
The FAA ultimately decided that the key to safety was modifying the existing radar system at a nearby airfield, rather than ordering an extensive replacement, as recommended by its technical operations team. A replacement could have jeopardized the long-awaited Cape Wind project, which aims to be the nation's first offshore wind farm, by delaying it three to four years.
The FAA's approval was overturned last year by an appeals court. In an email sent after that decision, an engineer worried about pilots of certain small aircraft flying near Cape Wind by sight, rather than using flight instruments.
"I don't think air traffic could keep a low flying, search-only (plane) from running into a wind turbine," he wrote.
Other documents show FAA workers repeatedly referring to the high-profile project's political implications, some characterizing it as "extremely political" or "highly political." Part of a May 2010 internal presentation reads: "It would be very difficult politically to refuse approval of this project."
Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which opposes Cape Wind, said that after reviewing the documents, "It's very clear that the FAA has put Cape Wind's business interests over the safety of the flying public."
In a statement, the FAA said "employee opinions expressed in internal emails or documents are not official agency positions." The agency said its evaluations of the effects of obstructions are "based on safety considerations and the available solutions to mitigate potential risks."
None of the newly released documents indicate managers directed employees to reach specific conclusions based on the project's political importance. One manager emphasized that because congressional interest in the ruling was so high, "We absolutely MUST have an iron-clad, thorough response to the radar concerns."
Sue Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Cape Wind supporter, said the political pressure about Cape Wind has gone both ways, with opponents relying on powerful allies such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy to fight the project at every level of government for a decade.
"They've worked every political channel at their disposal," she said.
She noted Cape Wind has won approvals in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and as well as when Randy Babbit, a former adviser to the anti-Cape Wind alliance, was head of the FAA.
Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said internal FAA debate about the project is expected, noting that nearly 200,000 wind turbines installed across the U.S. were approved "without complete agreement ... between FAA internal offices."
"We expect nothing different for Cape Wind," he said.
Cape Wind didn't respond to a question about whether it lobbied the FAA to choose the quicker radar modification, which was estimated to cost $1.6 million and was completed in January, over the more time-consuming $15 million system replacement.
Cape Wind was proposed in 2001, and it has met resistance since by opponents who say its power is too expensive, the project will spoil Nantucket Sound and it's a danger to maritime traffic and aviation.
Although Kennedy opposed the project, it now has strong state and federal support and was approved by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2010.
Project supporters see it starting a new green energy industry in the U.S., creating jobs and lowering carbon emissions. The $2.6 billion project has sold more than three-quarters of its planned power output, is seeking financing and aims to start producing electricity by 2014.
The FAA has repeatedly assessed the project and determined it doesn't present a hazard to airplanes, most recently in May 2010.
But in October, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., sent the case back to the FAA, saying the agency hadn't sufficiently focused on the project's risks to pilots that fly by sight only. The FAA said Thursday that it is again studying the turbines and will make another determination soon.