By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE
Kathleen Harper said she had never been part of an organized protest before. But she felt compelled to join with other protesters Saturday in Ocean City in opposition to a proposed offshore wind farm project that critics believe would be nothing less than an environmental “disaster.”
Harper, who lives in Dennis Township, carried a sign that declared, “Stop the Wind Turbines. Save the Whales. Protect Our Oceans.” She also placed a toy shark on top of her head as another symbol of her concerns for the marine life.
“I’m worried about the loss of our whales and the destruction of our ocean floor,” she said.
Harper reflects a growing movement that has brought together grass-roots protesters like herself with political leaders representing the coastal communities at the Jersey Shore to oppose plans for the Ocean Wind 1 project that would stretch from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor, 15 miles offshore.
Amid applause and cheers from Harper and other protesters, speaker after speaker denounced the wind farm during a rally Saturday morning that began in a small park across from City Hall and continued with a march across the Route 52 causeway bridge connecting Ocean City and Somers Point.
“It’s going to be a disaster if it ever gets built,” predicted Ocean City resident and Board of Education member Robin Shaffer, a leading critic of the wind farm.
Opposition to the wind farm has been mounting following more than 30 whale deaths along the East Coast that critics have blamed on sonar mapping of the seabed that is needed for construction of the project.
However, government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection say the recent deaths of whales, dolphins and other marine creatures in New Jersey and other coastal states have nothing to do with the wind farm work. They say evidence shows that most of the whales were struck and killed by shipping traffic.
Opponents reject those claims, though.
During Saturday’s protest, speakers pointed the finger at the wind farm for the whale deaths and warned of other possible dire impacts that the project could have on the Jersey Shore’s environment, the tourism industry and commercial fishing operations.
Republican Congressman Jeff Van Drew, the most prominent elected official in New Jersey who opposes the wind farm, said something must be done to halt the projects.
“Shame on us if we don’t fight this,” Van Drew said during an interview at the protest.
Van Drew, whose congressional district includes the coastal communities in Atlantic and Cape May counties, indicated that he believes “as time goes on and opposition mounts, there will be a better chance of stopping the project.”
He also believes the opposition movement is beginning to attract “thousands and thousands of more people than before.”
Protesters filled the Mark Soifer Park in downtown Ocean City to start the rally. Some carried signs proclaiming, “Save the Dolphins and Whales,” Save Ocean City,” “No Killer Turbines,” and “Save Our Shore, No Wind Turbines.”
Colleen Clark, of Longport, brought her 7-year-old triplets, Ella, Avery and Maddie, to the rally. They watched as speakers talked about the alleged harm the wind farms would cause to the environment and the economy.
Clark said it hit home for the family. One day while on the Longport beach, they saw a dolphin that had died.
“They love the water. The beach has been such an important part of their life and they go all the time,” Clark explained, while the girls held an anti-wind farm sign. “They know how important it is to save the animals. When we saw a dead dolphin on the beach, the girls said, ‘Mom, we have to do something.’ So, when we found out about the rally, we came.”
After the rally, the Clark family took to the Ninth Street Bridge with their anti-wind farm message.
Among the impassioned speakers at the rally was local realtor Richard Baehrle.
He shouted into the microphone that a wind farm would be bad for the environment, the economy and life at the Jersey Shore.
“Is that what we want to see at our Jersey Shore?” Baehrle asked the protesters.
“No!” the crowd shouted in response.
“Is that what we’re going to let happen at the Jersey Shore?” Baehrle asked again.
“No!” the crowd replied a second time.
“The right thing to do is shut down the windmills and shut them down now,” Baehrle continued. “We’re going to fight until it is stopped.”
State Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, of Cape May County, said the deaths of animals goes way beyond whales and dolphins. He said birds, bats and sting rays are at risk from the wind farm, too.
“Our district down here is commercial fishing. It’s not only our ecosystem that suffers, it’s our economic system that suffers,” Simonsen said.
Like Baehrle, Simonsen noted that there was one thing the residents can do: “We continue to fight for what’s right in South Jersey. We love where we live and we want to keep it the way it is. It just doesn’t make sense when you are putting hundreds of structures out in the ocean.”
The overriding theme at Saturday’s protest, and throughout other anti-wind farm rallies, speeches and forums, is also that they are not good for the environment.
Shaffer described them as “hideous windmills,” and said they would not be environmentally friendly.
By allowing them, it would mean, “We’re poisoning our water and air,” Shaffer said.
The protest was held just days after the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced it has completed its environmental analysis of the proposed Ocean Wind 1 offshore wind project along the South Jersey coast. It is a key preliminary step needed for construction of the project.
Orsted, the Danish energy company that wants to develop the Ocean Wind 1 project, proposes to construct up to 98 towering wind turbines between Atlantic City and Somers Point about 15 miles off the coast, passing by Ocean City and other beach communities in the process.
A transmission line to connect the wind turbines with the land-based electric grid would run through parts of Ocean City and Marmora to a substation at the former B.L. England power plant in Upper Township. Ocean City and Cape May County are fighting in court to block the transmission line.