BOSTON - 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."
Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers noted that the project won its most recent FAA clearance while Randy Babbitt, a former adviser to the anti-Cape Wind alliance, was running the agency.
Rodgers said the project has been judged safe after lengthy FAA review and is supported by the largest local commercial air traffic user, Cape Air, whose chief executive backed the project in a February letter to the FAA.
Internal FAA debate about the project is expected, Rodgers said, 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.
The project was opposed by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, but 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.
The alliance, which filed suit to overturn the FAA's approval of Cape Wind, obtained the agency documents after filing a Freedom of Information Act request in 2010. The group allowed The Associated Press to independently review the documents.
Many of the documents fall within a 15-month period from Feb. 13, 2009, when the FAA determined the wind farm could present an airplane navigation hazard, to May 17, 2010, when the agency reversed itself.
During that period, the FAA was attempting to address concerns shared by local air traffic controllers about radar reflections, or "clutter," expected from the wind farm's rotating turbines. The clutter makes it extremely difficult for air traffic controllers to spot planes over the wind farm that aren't equipped with the transponders that signal their location - usually smaller planes.
The FAA documents indicate that about 12 percent of the area's air traffic doesn't have transponders. A study commissioned by the FAA indicated that less than 1 percent of local air traffic passed over the proposed Cape Wind site.
The FAA eventually decided Cape Wind would pose no navigation hazard but only if modifications were made to the existing analog radar system at Otis Airfield, the center of local air traffic control, that would essentially help filter out the radar clutter.
The order said that in the "unlikely" event the modification didn't work as well as the FAA thought it would, a more advanced digital radar system would need to be installed and paid for by Cape Wind. But the documents also indicate significant uncertainty the modification would be sufficient.
Some documents refer to difficulties testing the selected fix. One noted no existing turbine fields match Cape Wind's planned configuration.
An official at the FAA's Operations Support Center, writing before Cape Wind agreed to pay for any needed upgrade, asked, "Who is the decision maker that puts the agency at (economic) risk if the decision if the (fix) doesn't work?"
Notes from an April 22, 2010, teleconference indicate that managers were still getting conflicting reports on the modification. "We hear that (the modification) will adequately address the issue. However, we hear that they won't," one note read.
After the FAA decision was overturned, an FAA engineer wrote, "We may never have to worry about getting rid of the clutter that may be created." He also expressed doubts that air traffic control could keep a low-flying search plane from "running into a wind turbine."