What started as a project to build America’s first offshore windfarm has turned into a ten-year battle, with powerful interests on both sides. One filmmaker chronicles the extreme opinions on both sides. Bruce Gellerman talks with the film’s director Robbie Gemmel about why the Cape Cod community is so passionate about this issue.
GELLERMAN: You’re listening to a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
[MUSIC: If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air…: Patti Page “Old Cape Cod”]
GELLERMAN: Lobster stew…and an ocean view? Winding roads and strong winds off the water beckon you? We've got just the place…
[MUSIC: You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod…that Old Cape Cod...]
GELLERMAN: Cape Cod juts out like an arm and a prize fighter’s fist into the Atlantic.
Five miles off the southern shore in Nantucket Sound beyond the sun, sand and surf, the wind blows steady and strong. For 10 years this vacation haven has been the scene of a knock-down drag-out fight over siting the nation’s first off shore wind farm. The Cape Wind Project – as it’s called – has come out the winner, having received all of the necessary state and federal approvals. And the decade-long battle is now chronicled in the new documentary: “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle.” Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of “Cape Spin.”
GEMMEL: I actually started following this story in 2001 when I was in college. I was absolutely mesmerized that it has carried on this long and it is still thriving more than ever.
GELLERMAN: Why? What is it about this project that so divides people?
GEMMEL: I would say, the scale of it and asking a community that has many generations on the Cape and Islands to embrace such a large-scale industrial project, when, for the most part, despite all the development that has happened on the Cape, these communities have really gone out of their way to really preserve the natural beauty and also the history of the Cape and Islands.
GELLERMAN: When they were originally proposing this way back when, it was something like 170 towers and turbines, right?
GEMMEL: Correct. It was 170 and then shortly thereafter they downsized it to 130 turbines.
GELLERMAN: It still takes up a lot of water!
GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct, it is a fairly large footprint. The turbines themselves I think are 16 feet wide, but the entire wind farm is spread across 25 miles.
GELLERMAN: On the pro side, you’ve got the developer, Jim Gordon, who wants to build the windfarm…
[MUSIC/FROM THE MOVIE: The Cape and Islands, according the American Lung Association has the worst air quality in Massachusetts, so we thought that by developing a major [WIND SOUNDS] wind-powered project we could supply 75 percent of the Cape and Island’s electricity, with zero pollutant emissions, zero water consumption and zero waste discharge [MUSIC BEGINS AGAIN]…]
Boats in harbor at Nantucket. (Photo: Maria Gilbert, Flickr Creative Commons)
GELLERMAN: On the other side, you’ve got the Alliance to Preserve Nantucket Sound, which was first financed by Bill Koch, who’s the fossil fuel energy billionaire. I don’t think you had any access, at least, you didn’t do any interviews, with Bill Koch.
GEMMEL: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s a rather interesting scenario to have a fossil fuel billionaire as the chairman of an environmental group fighting to protect a natural resource. Bill Koch has been completely unresponsive to doing an interview or talking to us in any capacity. I must say the proponents of the wind farm really welcomed us with open arms and were eager to jump in front of our cameras. The opposition was much more challenging to navigate, but eventually, they definitely let us in and trusted that we were doing an objective documentary.
GELLERMAN: This project has really created some very strange bedfellows. You’ve got Senator Ted Kennedy, from Massachusetts, who opposes it…
KENNEDY: The interests of our state have been basically submerged for a special interest developer. We’re gonna find out that tax payers are going to pay $800 million dollars to this developer. They’ll get money that they won’t be able to count!
GELLERMAN: And Senator Ted Stevens, from Alaska, he opposes it…
GEMMEL: Senator Kennedy was clearly the preeminent Senator fighting Alaskan oil drilling, which Ted Stevens had been wanting to push through for a decade. So, for them to become buddies in this fight was quite bizarre, but it was obvious why and how they were doing it - because the Alaskan Senators were working on Coast Guard legislation, which was very convenient to try to slip riders into to kill the wind farm.
GELLERMAN: There’s a part of the film where you’ve got one of the lobbyists who’s working to support the project, and he talks about, well, NIMBY – Not in My Back Yard.
SENATOR: Not here, and not there, and certainly not in my backyard LOBBYIST: First of all it’s five and half miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, and these people who say “Not in my Backyard,” it begs the question – how big is their f•••ing backyard?
GEMMEL: (Laughs). So, that’s obviously a very popular environmental term and slogan that’s been the crux of many environmental battles. Interestingly enough, most of them have been fighting fossil fueled power plants and what people refer to as ‘dirty energy,’ so to have that applied to a renewable energy project may be a first.
GELLERMAN: Probably the most powerful scene for me in the movie is the mountaintop removal, the coalmine, where they’re blowing up the tops of these mountains in Virginia and West Virginia. Why did you include them?
GEMMEL: Well, for one, I mean, I think it’s really important for people to keep in mind where our energy comes from when we turn on the light switch, but it wasn’t even a stretch to include that because those people were coming to the hearings on the Cape, begging people to understand what they were going through and they were obviously supporting the wind farm.
[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: Now, October of 2001, a giant slurry impoundment, 72-acres of toxic coal sludge failed. Everything in it died [HELICOPTER BLADES TURNING]. Three hundred and nine million gallons of toxic sludge and I bet nobody here heard about it because the folk in Appalachia are expendable. And we’re tired of bearing the burden of everybody’s energy use [CRYING].]
GEMMEL: They were holding up pictures and telling stories of rocks rolling through their homes and killing three-year-olds, and the mudslides that were filling their rivers of coal sludge, and so it’s a pretty gut-wrenching picture to understand what’s going on down there to supply our country with energy.
[WOMAN IN MOVIE CLIP: I’m sorry, I do have some sympathy for those who are concerned about their view, but come and see the view-sheds and how they have been despoiled in Appalachia… MUSIC…]
GELLERMAN: You know for something so serious, your film has a lot of funny scenes in it.
GEMMEL: This controversy has divided families in the community, and we felt that the community really needed to feel some levity out of this controversy, and both sides are incredibly brilliant, passionate, and very funny characters. And what they’ve done to fight both for and against it is just absolutely mesmerizing, hilarious at times, gut-wrenching, sad. So we kind of went out of our way to have as much fun with it as we could.
GELLERMAN: You must have had fun choosing the music - there’s a lot of music in this.
GEMMEL: Yeah, we’ve been trying to go with kind of an Americana theme. Because we do want to use this story to kind of broaden out into the bigger picture and push off of this controversy and use the lessons learned to help people navigate future energy crises.
GELLERMAN: The piece of music that I particularly like, and I don’t like this song, but I like the way you used it… is the old, I think Blood Sweat and Tears song, “Spinning Wheel.”
GEMMEL: Right, yeah, it’s obviously such a great fit for us - we used the title “Cape Spin” for the double entendre, obviously because the spin of the turbines, but also because of the political spin, the media spin, there’s so much spin. So when we came up with that song, we were pretty excited to integrate it into the film.
[MUSIC: What goes up, must come down…(This version appeared in the film Blood Sweat And Tears): “Spinning Wheel” from Blood Sweat And Tears (Columbia Records 1969).)/MIXED WITH MOVIE CLIPS.]
GELLERMAN: Did you ever count how many edits you made in this, how many fast-cuts?
GEMMEL: (Laughs.) Uh, we have over 550 hours of footage that we have been whittling down to 90 minutes for the past two and a half years, so it’s been quite a beast.
GELLERMAN: And you use it to basically, kind of, put the politics in juxtaposition, it keeps on going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
GEMMEL: Yeah, there are just so many bizarre approaches and angles to pushing this project forward and also to killing it, and the way people have collaborated from so many different camps has been really, really fascinating to witness and understand, and enlightening, actually, in terms of understanding how politics works and how large-scale energy projects get built and get squashed.
GELLERMAN: When you were making this film, did you find yourself at one point saying, “hey yeah, I really support the project,” and then again turning around and saying, “ah, yeah, I really am against the project?”
GEMMEL: Oh, constantly. My main arc was I first learned about the project when I was a sophomore in college and then I followed it for several years and I was pitching it to many different companies, and throughout that phase I really thought that should happen. And then, I ended up being a mate on a fishing boat in Nantucket to really immerse myself in the community, and then I did start to understand why people cared so much about protecting Nantucket Sound. And in the end, I guess it’s just going to be really interesting to see what happens.
GELLERMAN: So, is it over?
GEMMEL: I definitely would not say it’s over. The proponents are not backing down. There are still a few lawsuits pending. Cape Wind and the proponents claim that none of them would be able to stop them from moving forward. I’m sure if it is built, the proponents will be going out of their way to find and highlight every single thing that’s wrong with it. So I don’t think this is going away anytime soon.
GELLERMAN: Well, the problem is are you going to go away? Are you going to continue to follow the project, or are you going to stop filming, or what?
GEMMEL: I more or less told myself a year ago that this was probably a life-long endeavor that I’m going to be involved with in some capacity.
GELLERMAN: Well, Robbie, thank you so very much.
GEMMEL: My pleasure, thank you very much!
GELLERMAN: Robbie Gemmel is producer and director of Cape Spin.
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