NEW BEDFORD — On the morning of May 23, 2020, Kommandor Susan, a 274-foot geotechnical research vessel, left the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal and headed out to sea. As the nearly 3,500-ton vessel passed through the Hurricane Barrier, its stern struck a barrier gate and concrete abutment.

The cause was a communication breakdown, a federal report states, as the pilot misinterpreted what the bridge watch stated and was “having a hard time communicating with the foreign crew.”

The crash caused approximately $600,000 in damage to the barrier. The sector gates — which seal shut to prevent flooding — remained functional, but damage was noted to several parts. Repairs were not completed until January of 2022.

Though the 150-foot barrier opening is more than double the Kommandor Susan’s 64-feet width, things start looking “pretty tight” for vessels more than 70 feet wide, said John MacPherson, canal manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New England District. Starting some time next year, two barges with widths of up to 105 feet are projected to pass through the barrier approximately 125 times over the course of several months. Assisted by two tugboats, each barge will carry the wind turbine parts for what is set to be the country’s first commercial scale offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind.

Some local and federal officials have acknowledged or expressed concern over the risk of the barges hitting the barrier gates, stating it could take more than one year to get a gate back online after severe damage — an event that has not happened in the barrier’s history. But according to a 320-page risk analysis report prepared for Vineyard Wind in 2021, the probability of a strike with the sector gates based on simulations is rare, or “less than unlikely.”  

Years of study and preparation

Justin Poulsen, executive director of the New Bedford Port Authority, said risk management can be broken into two questions: how likely is something to happen, and if something happens, how bad would it be?

The second question, he said, “scares” him.

“It’s not just the working waterfront that depends on the hurricane barrier. It’s the community; it’s parts of Fairhaven and Acushnet and New Bedford that depend on that existentially.”

Justin Poulsen

“It’s not just the working waterfront that depends on the hurricane barrier. It’s the community; it’s parts of Fairhaven and Acushnet and New Bedford that depend on that existentially,” he said in an interview last fall. “So that’s the part that we can’t be cavalier about … you can’t just go buy a sprocket … These are custom design pieces that have long lead times. And so that’s really the concern.”

To address the risk of a vessel strike, personnel from Vineyard Wind, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Corps of Engineers, the New Bedford Port Authority, as well as consultants and maritime experts, started working together as early as 2019 to study the risk and develop a transit plan for the vessels.

David Margolis, chief of the Corps of Engineers New England engineering division, in a 2020 letter to the respective stakeholders called the 150-foot-wide barrier opening a “choke point” for the high volume of vessels that use the port.

“The damage caused by allisions has ranged from none to major repairs required,” he wrote. An allision is defined as a moving object, such as a vessel, striking a stationary object — in this case, the hurricane barrier. Repairs can take more than a year to complete, he wrote, which is of “great concern” if the damage or repair activity keeps the barrier out of service.

A fishing vessel returns from a trip into New Beford Harbor as seen from the Harbor View Terrace at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. A geotechnical research vessel struck the barrier on its way out to sea in 2020, causing around $600,000 in damage to the barrier. Credit: David W. Oliveira / For The New Bedford Light

MacPherson in 2021 said there is not really a “plan B” for flood protection if one or both of the sector gates stopped functioning as a result of damage. Echoing Margolis’ comments, he said it could be out of commission for at least a year depending on the severity of the damage and the time needed to secure materials, a contractor and a repair plan.

Given this risk, Vineyard Wind was required to apply for federal approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to transit through the barrier. According to records, the wind company paid approximately $118,000 to the federal government for the time and personnel resources the agency required to evaluate the request. 

The plan anticipates 67 foreign-flagged “heavy lift” vessels up to 550 feet in length and 90 feet in width delivering turbine components via approximately 134 transits through the barrier to the Marine Commerce Terminal. They will make between five to 10 shipments per month over the course of seven months.

A General Electric Renewable Energy spokesperson would not say exactly where GE’s Haliade-X turbine components will be coming from, other than GE’s “existing manufacturing sites.” 

At the terminal, which is managed by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, construction workers will unload components delivered by water, assemble them, and load them onto the barges when it is time to install the turbines, said Andrew Doba, a Vineyard Wind spokesperson. 

The planned tow route for tug boats transporting wind turbine components. The tow route and location marks on the map are approximate. Credit: Kellen Riell / The New Bedford Light. Source: Vineyard Wind, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA.

According to the proposed plan, the barges will travel north along the western side of the port before turning southeast into the federal channel and through the barrier gates, Doba confirmed. On the way, the barges will pass the State Pier and the old Cannon Street Power Station, which is set to be redeveloped into the city’s second offshore wind staging site.

Doba said each outgoing barge will carry the components for a single wind turbine — a tower, three blades and the nacelle — to the lease area. On how many months this will take, he said the exact timing depends on several factors, including weather.

Margolis in a letter said safe transit with the tugs and barge configuration will be “highly dependent” on transiting during favorable weather and environmental conditions, noting the heavy turbine parts can significantly increase wind forces on the barge and obstruct visibility.

Per Vineyard Wind’s agreement with the Corps, the barges will be limited to operating only when wind speeds are less than 15 knots and visibility is greater than one nautical mile. Transits will also be limited to daylight hours, but these parameters are subject to change as the operations begin.

“Local knowledge is everything. We all know in the afternoons here in summertime, seabreeze kicks up, a little bit of southwest wind fills in. It’s great for sailing, not so great for towing a big barge through a narrow spot.” 

William Chace

Through computer simulations, pilots demonstrated they could successfully transit the barrier on a regular basis, states a 2021 risk analysis report, which The Light obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

After the different simulations, the pilots and tug captains rated the difficulty and safety of the transits, with the number 1 being the most difficult and least safe, and 5 being the least difficult and safest scenario. The average difficulty ratings ranged from 2.9 to 4, while the average safety rating ranged from 2 to 4, the report states. 

For further risk mitigation measures, MacPherson said the Corps added windsocks and more lights to the barrier to aid the pilots in their navigation. 

William Chace, a retired captain who teaches at Fairhaven’s Northeast Maritime Institute and towed barges, said the dimensions of the barge and the barrier opening provide “plenty of space.” The most important thing, he said, is that the tug and barge pilots are familiar with the local weather and geography.

“Local knowledge is everything,” he said. “We all know in the afternoons here in summertime, seabreeze kicks up, a little bit of southwest wind fills in. It’s great for sailing, not so great for towing a big barge through a narrow spot.” 

“Whoever steps into that wheelhouse needs to know that intimately,” he said. “There’s so much more to it than just the ability to tow something.” 

According to the report, the tug and barge personnel will be in regular contact with and working alongside local pilots before and during transits.

History of the barrier

Since 2010, there have been 11 recorded strikes against the hurricane barrier from a variety of vessels, with the most common being “tug-barge combinations,” said Bryan Purtell, a Corps of Engineers spokesperson. In those instances, the barges were 200 to 300 feet in length with 50- to 55-foot beams.

Mayor Jon Mitchell noted in a letter to the Corps, also signed by a Fairhaven official, that freighters of a similar width to the project’s vessels have used the port for many years, but he acknowledged the Corps’ point that the higher frequency of transits raises the risk. 

The Corps operates the 440-ton sector gates between 20 to 25 times per year, and closures have protected the New Bedford area from storm surges, including Tropical Storm Henri last summer. 

The barrier runs 4,500 feet across the harbor, with dikes made of Dartmouth stone jutting into the land on both sides. It protects about 1,400 acres in New Bedford, Fairhaven and Acushnet from flooding. 

This map, which has been colorized by The New Bedford Light, shows which coastal areas of New Bedford were at risk of flooding in 1958, before the barrier was built. Credit: U.S. Department of the Army pamphlet from the New Bedford Public Library archives

Construction started in 1962 and finished in 1966, costing $18.6 million. Around that time, community figures spoke of the refuge the barrier would provide to “pleasure boats” and commercial fishing fleets, and how it would incentivize new businesses to relocate to the city. 

“We believe it will become an important part of the economic development of our communities,” said James B. Buckley, then-executive vice president of waterfront business Revere Copper and Brass in a 1966 article in The Standard-Times. 

Photos taken between 1962 and 1966, when the barrier construction was complete. Credit : New Bedford Standard-Times news archive collection, courtesy of the New Bedford Free Public Library

Future of the barrier

MacPherson in an interview with The Light last fall said that years ago, representatives from a wind company (he could not recall which) asked if the Corps had contemplated widening the barrier opening and inquired how much it would cost to replace the gates.

Mitchell also mentioned widening the opening in a 2021 letter to the Corps.

“For over a half-century, the barrier has served its purpose of protecting our region from storm surges, including those of two hurricanes,” Mitchell wrote. “Given the ever-changing port economy, rising sea levels, and more frequent storms, it would be useful to evaluate whether any physical modifications to the barrier would be necessary or appropriate. These could include the addition of bumpers or other shock absorber features, as well as the possible widening of the barrier opening itself.” 

MacPherson said widening the opening would be a “large ticket” item that Congress would have to approve funds for, as prior to building a new opening, the Corps would need to study and design it.

When asked, Doba did not state whether Vineyard Wind inquired about widening the barrier opening, only that “current parameters work logistically for the project.” He said the risk is “exceedingly low,” citing a report that found “the odds of an allision for one transit through the barrier was 1:625,466.”

In his letter to the Corps of Engineers, Mitchell listed necessary protocols to lower the risks associated with vessel strikes as this offshore wind project (and potential future wind projects) begins, including having spare parts at the ready.

“In the unlikely event of an allision, the Corps should be prepared to repair the damage as fast as humanly possible and get the gates back on-line,” he wrote. “It is also imperative that the Corps have on hand spare parts that cannot otherwise be promptly obtained.”

John Regan, director of policy and external affairs for the Port Authority, said U.S. Rep. Bill Keating’s office recently contacted the mayor’s office regarding the Federal Water Resources Development Act of 2022, which will authorize future studies and projects for the Corps.

Rendering of a new offshore wind staging site at the old Cannon Street Power Station by private investor group Cannon Street Holdings LLC.

A federal committee has asked Congress to submit project and study requests for consideration, so Regan said the Port Authority worked with the mayor to propose language to the act that would earmark $2 million for necessary expenses related to the maintenance and repair of the barrier, including a “contingency plan” for components that are critical and have long lead times.

The Port Authority is also developing a vessel management plan, which will establish safe practices and protocols for all the vessels that call on the port. Mitchell in his letter said a thorough plan for all harbor users would eliminate the need for the Corps to require a review for every future wind project that will transit through the barrier.

In July of 2021, the Corps granted approval, giving Vineyard Wind through Dec. 31, 2024, to complete the authorized work. The company is financially responsible for any damage to the barrier that may arise during the project. 

When Vineyard Wind finishes the shipping out of its 62 turbines, Mayflower Wind is set to occupy the Marine Commerce terminal in 2025 to help with the launch of its offshore wind farm. Just a half-mile up the road, the former Cannon Street Power Plant is set to become another staging site, with the intent of attracting more offshore wind vessels to the port — and through the barrier — as early as 2023

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org

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