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Shinnecock Nation wants to center Indigenous perspective to offshore wind farm debate

The U.S. approved a large offshore wind project on Tuesday, advancing a plan to build a turbine installation some 12 nautical miles offshore from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. This photo shows the first offshore wind project in America: the Block Island Wind Farm, off the shores of Block Island, R.I., as seen in 2016.
Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images
This photo shows the first offshore wind project in America.

Earlier this year, the National Congress of American Indians called for offshore wind projects to be put on pause until tribal territory and sovereignty is safeguarded. This comes in wake of the Biden administration leasing out large parcels of the Atlantic coastline to offshore wind farms in effort to curb carbon emissions.

Today, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is working to protect marine life from wind farms under construction around Long Island. An animal particularly at risk is the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, which the tribe has had a spiritual connection with for thousands of years.

Tela Troge, a Shinnecock tribal attorney, said the nation has been in conversation with the federal Bureau of Energy Management, New York and energy companies to offer suggestions and tribal knowledge. The Nation, for example, has requested moving the construction timelines to protect whales during their migratory season.

Lawmakers in New Jersey have called for a moratorium on offshore wind farm surveying after an uptick in whale deaths in New York and New England that they think is linked to sonar testing. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states there is no evidence that noise from wind farm surveying is linked to whale deaths.

“This issue affects us in a huge way, because Indigenous people have their territory on land, but also in the water,” Troge said. “And Indigenous people have never relinquished any control over the oceans to any entity, including the United States government.”

The Shinnecock tribe is also concerned about protecting their tribal territory and sovereignty. One concern they raised was in regards to the placement of cables that transmit the energy from offshore onto land.

“We noticed in some cases they were heavily skewed towards disadvantaged communities and we were able to say that we didn’t think that was appropriate, or that there is a high likelihood that human remains may be disturbed,” Troge said.

A bill to protect these unmarked burial sites is expected to be signed into law this year. The legislation requires developers that find human remains to stop and contact the state.

The tribe has also been working to protect their most spiritual viewpoints from being obstructed by the development of wind turbines.

“It’s a frustrating process because nobody has funded any tribal nation to do the massive amount of work that entails from protecting endangered species to being able to understand the technical aspects of constructing these wind turbines,” Troge said.

Troge said using traditional ecological practices can help mitigate the harm renewable energy projects can have on biodiversity.

One traditional practice is using seaweed. Troge is also the director of the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, a multi-generational collective of six Indigenous women who started a kelp farm to protect their bay from pollution.

Troge explained that an issue surrounding wind farms is balancing oxygen in the water. When wind turbines produce and transmit electricity, the water temperature will increase which can cause algal blooms. Such blooms decrease oxygen levels in the water forcing marine life to leave the area.

Troge said introducing kelp farms to these offshore areas will help control the oxygen levels by soaking up carbon.

“It’s really about this control of oxygen levels that’s so critical and creates the habitat where fish and turtles and seahorses and all these wonderful creatures are drawn to the replenishment of oxygen into the habitat,” she said.

Troge said the idea is in the very beginning stages of development, but it has been implemented successfully in other countries to mitigate the harm.

Maria Lynders is a former news fellow at WSHU.