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PROVIDENCE — At the end of a contentious five-hour hearing on the South Fork Wind Farm on May 25, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council took up a motion by chairwoman Jennifer Cervenka.
She wanted to direct the developers of the large offshore wind farm proposed in Rhode Island Sound to sit down one more time with local fishermen to talk about the creation of a fund to compensate them for fishing losses caused by the project.
Ørsted and Eversource, partners on the 132-megawatt wind farm, had offered to pay into the fund over 30 years, making regular installments that would eventually total $12 million.
The fishermen asked for the money up front, knowing it would have greater value and be immediately available to cover upgrades to their boats and additional costs associated with having to work within the wind farm, or to pay them for lost days at sea during piledriving and other construction activity.
Cervenka’s motion specifically asked the two sides to talk about the payment schedule and consider the fishermen’s request. But the council majority disagreed. The motion giving the fishermen one last chance to make their case was defeated by a 4-to-3 vote.
The coastal council adjourned and put off what was supposed to be the key decision that night: whether to certify that the wind farm is consistent with Rhode Island’s coastal policies.
The vote on Cervenka’s motion was an unremarkable piece of business, except in one respect:
The deciding vote was cast by the newest member of the council, Lindsay McGovern, an executive with one of Rhode Island’s biggest renewable energy companies, who had just won confirmation to her seat an hour and a half earlier.
At 4:32 p.m., the state Senate voted to confirm McGovern to her position on the council. At 6:08 p.m., she was present via Zoom for the start of the virtual meeting in which the coastal council was facing one of its most contentious and complex rulings in recent times.
The stakes were high for the developers. They had submitted their application more than two years earlier, and they would need an approval for the project to move ahead.
There was also a lot on the line for the state. Ørsted and Eversource had promised an initial $40 million in improvements in the Quonset Business Park and the Port of Providence, with potentially much more to follow.
The coastal council’s deliberations were being closely watched because any decision could set a precedent for other developers who are set to come before the agency in coming years seeking similar approvals.
‘A wind farm patsy’
Even though McGovern asked no questions and made no comments on the application at the meeting, her presence didn’t go unnoticed.
During his testimony, without naming McGovern, Chris Brown, a member of the fishermen’s board that advises the council on offshore development impacts, pointed to Gov. Dan McKee’s 11th-hour move to get her on the council as evidence of what he believes is unfair favoritism in state government for the nascent offshore wind industry.
“He did not support a higher level of scientific inquiry. He did not ask that we develop a profile of socioeconomic impacts. But he did manage to stick a wind farm patsy on the council just in time for the vote in an attempt to stack the deck,” said Brown, a Galilee fisherman and president of the Seafood Harvesters of America. “She will vote today. What a coincidence.”
He spoke before Cervenka made her motion and McGovern voted. After the meeting, he confirmed that he was referring to McGovern and said her vote that night only offered more credence to his position.
When asked to respond, McKee’s office said that McGovern was recommended by the administration of his predecessor, Gina Raimondo, a big booster of offshore wind who left office in February to become U.S. secretary of commerce.
McKee spokeswoman Alana O’Hare said neither the governor nor anyone in his office instructed McGovern to take votes favorable to the wind farm, or expected her to support a project that is in a similar industry as hers because of her work as a developer with Warwick-based Revity Energy.
Referring specifically to Brown’s comments, O’Hare said, “These statements are inaccurate and baseless.”
McGovern did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the last two months.
Long-standing concerns about council structure
The concerns about McGovern came amid other questions raised by Brown and fellow members of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board about the way that talks had been handled with Ørsted and Eversource.
The negotiations had been tense for months, but things escalated in the days leading up to the May 25 meeting. The board alleged that it was kept out of a final round of talks between coastal council staff and the developers in which the two sides settled on an agreement to reduce the number of turbines in the project from 15 to 12 and set up the $12-million fund.
Marisa Desautel, a lawyer for the fishermen’s board, described the agreement as “a backroom deal.” Jeff Willis, executive director of the coastal council, denied any wrongdoing.
After the meeting, members of the fishermen’s board asked to sit down with Attorney General Peter Neronha, who hasn’t been shy about criticizing recent coastal council actions. They met with a lawyer in the attorney general’s environmental unit on May 27. Soon afterward, a spokeswoman for Neronha said his office was “continuing to monitor the situation.” Neronha has taken no action to date.
The accusations are just the latest about dealings by the coastal council in the last eight months. Opponents of a long-disputed marina expansion on Block Island complained they were excluded from a settlement proposal that the council made late last year. Neronha stepped in, and the state Supreme Court rejected the Champlin’s Marina settlement.
In April, Neronha again criticized the council, this time for skipping required steps in the approval process for a boatyard expansion in Jamestown.
After the questions about the Champlin’s agreement were raised, the Senate indefinitely suspended the appointments to new terms of three coastal council members, including Cervenka, who recused herself from the marina talks because of past legal work for opponents of the expansion, and vice chairman Raymond Coia, who oversaw the negotiations in her place.
At the request of state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, the House last month approved a commission to consider reorganizing the agency, which is unique in state government in that it has professional staff with expertise in coastal issues, but puts all major decisions in the hands of a 10-member council made up of members appointed by the governor. Recent appointments have included a dental hygienist and the head of a chain of physical therapy offices.
There have been long-standing concerns about the makeup of the coastal council and previous efforts at reform. They include a 2019 Senate resolution to set up a commission to take a closer look at the agency. That commission has yet to convene.
In 2017, not long before it took up consideration of a certification for a liquefied natural gas facility in the Port of Providence, three members known to be environmental advocates were replaced. Opponents of the proposal alleged that the changes were politically motivated. (The project was approved.)
Critics have been pushing for representation on the council from South Providence or another environmental justice community, and from conservation groups. For years now, Save The Bay has been calling for a restructuring of the agency that would include abolishing the council of appointees.
“The CRMC’s structure is fundamentally flawed and needs fixing,” Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for the organization, said at a legislative hearing in May.
An 11th-hour appointment
The coastal council was initially scheduled to rule on the South Fork consistencyapplication on April 29.
But days before the meeting, with rumors swirling that council staff were considering recommending a denial of the certificate, McKee’s office stepped in and asked for a delay. The developers and the fishermen’s board agreed, and the council announced that it would take up the issue again on May 25.
Even though the council is supposed to have 10 members, at the time it had only eight. Soon after requesting the delay, on May 7, McKee, who had made no prior efforts to fill the vacancies, submitted a nomination for McGovern to the Senate. The Senate formally received the nomination May 11 and scheduled a hearing before the Committee on Environment and Agriculture for May 19.
At the committee hearing, McGovern, the vice president of Revity Energy, formerly Southern Sky Renewable Energy Rhode Island, summarized her qualifications, saying that from her experience developing solar projects she understood the balance between promoting economic development and protecting the environment.
“I feel as though my experience from my position as a developer really goes hand in hand with what the CRMC needs,” she said.
She told the committee that she was asked to submit her name for the council by member Jerry Sahagian.
Sahagian, a real-estate agent and liquor-store owner who was on the council from 1994 to 2006 and was reappointed in 2012, is finance chair of McKee’s 2022 run for governor, a role in which he is in charge of all fundraising activities for the campaign.
Sahagian also has a reputation — along with Coia, the administrator of a labor union fund — for being among the most favorable council members to development proposals. At the May 25 council meeting, both Sahagian and Coia voted against Cervenka’s motion before McGovern did too.
After this story was published online, Sahagian said he spoke to McGovern only after she was being considered for nomination.
“She reached out and had questions regarding frequency of meetings and the time commitment,” he said. “I still to this day haven’t met her.”
Questions about appointing a developer to the council
The coastal council’s management procedures require that “prior to serving on the Council all members shall complete a training program developed by the agency staff.”
The training can last several hours and includes a review of the council’s manual, special management plans and meeting rules, but former members and staff say it takes months to fully understand the council’s responsibilities overseeing all development along Rhode Island’s 400 miles of coastline and its singular regulatory process.
After the committee approval — but before the full Senate voted to confirm her nomination — McGovern completed the training program, according to council spokeswoman Laura Dwyer. When asked if other members had gone through the training before their positions had gone to a final vote by the Senate, she could not say.
Two of the members replaced in 2017, Paul Beaudette and Tony Affigne, said they received the training after Senate confirmation. The third, former chairwoman Anne Maxwell Livingston, said she could not recall any training before confirmation or before her first meeting. But she said that all members were invited to training sessions at least once a year.
McGovern would go on to win Senate confirmation in a unanimous vote, but Sen. Samuel Bell abstained after questioning the wisdom of putting a developer on a state board tasked with controlling development and protecting natural resources.
“It puts, I think, a potential for a mindset that’s opposed to critics of development,” the Providence Democrat said. “I think that’s potentially concerning for the Coastal Resources Management Council.”
State law requires that “each appointed member of the council, before entering upon his or her duties, shall take an oath to administer the duties of his or her office faithfully and impartially, and the oath shall be filed in the office of the secretary of state.”
McGovern took the oath before a notary public on May 24, the eve of her Senate confirmation vote and what would be her first council meeting, according to documents filed with the secretary of state’s office.
McGovern’s company at center of solar debate
Under its former name, Revity Energy is known for its development of large solar projects in Rhode Island, including what for a time was the state’s biggest, a 21.5-megawatt array in western Cranston.
McGovern is the company’s vice president, in charge of all business development. The company is headed by her father, Ralph Palumbo, who, like her, is a certified public accountant by profession.
The two of them, as well as other employees of the family business, have donated heavily to Rhode Island politicians. McGovern, Palumbo and others employed by Revity or Southern Sky have given a total of $47,600 to local and state leaders since 2015, according to state campaign finance records.
House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a lawyer, has represented Revity in some of its past solar developments and is currently working on a housing proposal for the company on a site where a solar project was rejected in Coventry.
Revity sometimes develops solar arrays on brownfields and other areas that have already been disturbed. Its solar field installed atop a closed landfill in North Providence was widely celebrated for redeveloping an otherwise unusable site.
But the company has drawn scrutiny for projects like Gold Meadow Farm, its sprawling development in Cranston, which required the clear-cutting of 108 acres of woodland to make way for 58,000 ground-mounted solar panels. Another large proposal in Hopinkton was rejected over environmental concerns.
Opponents say those and other projects are emblematic of the destruction of green space wrought by solar developers in the name of renewable energy in Rhode Island.
Shades of the controversy have similarities with questions surrounding offshore wind projects. Some fishermen and environmental advocates argue that the climate benefits of offshore wind are undermined by the harm that anchoring turbines to the ocean floor causes to marine habitats.
Cox Ledge, the area in Rhode Island Sound where the South Fork project would be built, is known as one of the most important fish nurseries in Southern New England. It is believed to be so valuable that Save The Bay, which supports offshore wind energy overall, came out against the South Fork proposal.
Fishermen complain about wind farm process
Members of the fishing industry in New England and the mid-Atlantic have long felt aggrieved by the way that government agencies have handled offshore wind development.
Their criticism directed at McKee echoes comments made about Raimondo, when she was governor and Vineyard Wind, the first major offshore wind farm being developed in the nation, came before the Rhode Island coastal council.
As commerce secretary, Raimondo still has authority over the process. Any appeals of council decisions must go before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Commerce Department.
Despite the vote against Cervenka’s motion calling for a sit-down between the fishermen and the developers, the two sides did voluntarily agree to talk again before the council reconvened on June 2, but they couldn’t find common ground.
In advance of the June 2 council meeting, agency staff made one change in response to some of the concerns raised by the fishing industry. They recommended an upfront payment to fishermen, but of only $5.2 million, the net present value of the amount Ørsted and Eversource proposed paying out over 30 years. Additionally, staff said the money should be put into a fund overseen by fishermen that was created with the earlier payments from Vineyard Wind.
But in a 5-to-2 vote, the council went against the recommendation and acceded to a request from the developers that the money go instead into a separate fund that fishermen would have no control over and that it would be disbursed subject to a claims process. Cervenka voted against the motion. Sahagian and Coia voted for it, followed by McGovern.
Fishermen say that the appointment of McGovern and the apparent rush to make sure she took up her duties in time for the South Fork decision only confirm their suspicions that the regulatory process is tilted in favor of offshore wind developers.
Without commenting on McGovern, whom he does not know, Affigne, one of the former council members who was replaced in 2017, spoke generally about what he sees as recent failings by the council.
“Their most important political capital is their integrity,” Affigne, a political science professor at Providence College, said. “CRMC is undermining its own mission. And that’s tragic.”
Council chairwoman resigns
On July 22, seven weeks after the vote, Cervenka resigned from the coastal council. An environmental lawyer with a practice in Providence, she did not state a reason in her resignation letter to McKee and declined an interview request.
But it was clear during the South Fork meetings and other recent matters that she had become a minority voice on the council. As well as not taking part in the Champlin’s proceedings, she voted against the Jamestown marina application.
Her departure means the council again has two openings. After nominating McGovern in May, McKee has made no other moves to fill the vacancies and hasn’t given any indication of whom he will recommend as the new chair.
Apart from McGovern and a permanent representative of the Department of Environmental Management, all six other current members are on expired terms. The terms of five expired in January 2020, while member Joy Montanaro’s expired in January 2016. McKee has not nominated any of them for reappointment, but statute allows them to continue serving — without being subjected to Senate review — unless they’re replaced.
Sometime after the South Fork meetings, McGovern went on maternity leave. She was not at the council’s most recent meeting on July 27.
During the Senate confirmation vote, Senator Bell raised another concern about McGovern. Revity Energy’s projects can’t go forward unless it signs up big power consumers that can take the company’s electricity to offset their usage. The company has secured contracts with the cities of Pawtucket, Providence and North Providence, among others.
It has also gotten $425,000 from the state Renewable Energy Fund, which is financed by a surcharge on electric ratepayers and aimed at spurring development. Awards from the fund are approved by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation’s board of directors, which is chaired by the governor.
Bell mused on the type of deal-making with government leaders the company relies on and what it could mean for an important regulatory body like the coastal council.
“Because such a business always needs favors, needs to please people in positions of power,” he said. “It’s hard to take a vote against the interests of those in power when you have a business that requires assistance from people in power.”