A key federal agency gave preliminary environmental approval to a proposed wind farm off Cape Cod on Monday, giving a boost to a project that has sparked a long and bitter public fight in the region.
A report by the Minerals Management Service said plans by developer Cape Wind Associates to build 130 windmills across 25 miles of federal waters in Nantucket Sound would pose no major environmental problems. The agency looked at the project's effect in areas including water quality, wildlife, air traffic, the fishing industry, recreation and tourism.
After a public comment period on its report, the agency, which will decide the project's fate, is expected to make a final decision this year. Public hearings will be held in March in West Yarmouth, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Boston.
The proposal would build the nation's first offshore wind farm — with turbines rising up to 440 feet above sea level when the tallest blades point straight up. It has been controversial since it was proposed more than six years ago, pitting some of the state's top politicians against each other.
Various federal and state agencies have been reviewing the wind farm plans since November 2001.
"The draft environmental impact statement is a crucial step forward in completing our review of the Cape Wind Energy Project," said Minerals Management Service director Randall Luthi in a statement.
Supporters says the project is a safe, clean way to create renewable energy and new jobs. They say the wind farm would enhance energy independence while providing lower energy costs, a healthier environment and new jobs.
The Conservation Law Foundation, a long-time advocate of the project, said the environmental report was a good sign for the project.
"Cape Wind is one of the nation's most promising clean energy projects," said foundation president Philip Warburg in a statement. "When built, its 130 turbines will deliver clean energy to thousands of households, making an immediate impact in the region's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and end our dependency on dirty fossil fuels."
Opponents fear possible environmental and economic effects on Cape Cod's tourist and fishing industries. The project also has drawn criticism from commercial fishermen, cruise lines, wildlife advocates and Cape Cod representatives.
Even after the government makes a final decision, Cape Cod congressman and project foe Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., has predicted there will be a flood of litigation challenging whatever is decided.
Two of the state's most powerful figures have lined up on opposite sides of the wind farm.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose family's Hyannis Port compound would have a clear view of the farm, opposes it, citing risks to fishing, navigation, aviation and the sanctuary of Nantucket Sound. Kennedy also has branded the project a government handout to a developer who stands to gain from huge tax breaks.
Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick, who has pledged to boost the state as a center for alternative energy, supports the Cape Wind project and has said the state needs to invest in environmentally friendly energy technology.