Winds of change: Coal advocate Rep. Haddad now ally for offshore wind

NEW BEDFORD — It was just after midnight on Aug. 1 when Wind Energy Center Director Matthew Morrissey received the text: “You’re all set.”

The short message signaled the defeat of a renewable energy bill in the House of Representatives that had threatened to dash New Bedford’s offshore wind hopes by giving utilities an incentive to sign 30-year long contracts with Canadian hydropower, potentially pushing offshore wind, and New Bedford’s economic future, out of the market.

The text was sent by offshore wind’s new and unlikely ally in the Statehouse: Rep. Patricia Haddad of Somerset.

That’s right; Somerset, of Brayton Point coal-fired power plant fame.

But with the plant set to go offline in 2017, taking more than 30 percent of Somerset’s tax revenue with it, Haddad has done an energy-policy 180, aligning herself with offshore wind interests in the hope that whatever economic development the industry brings to New Bedford will spread to Somerset.

That turnaround is no fluke, the result of concentrated lobbying on the part of New Bedford’s delegation. Haddad is a powerful ally to have, serving as Speaker Pro Tempore, second only to the Speaker in the House hierarchy.

It’s that role that brought her to the rostrum for the final hours of the House’s summer session when allies of the renewable energy bill, which never made it out of committee, were trying to tack it onto other pieces of legislation to sneak it through.

Haddad gaveled the amendments down, blocking the initiative from becoming law.

“We breathed a sigh of relief when we received that final text message from Rep. Haddad on the rostrum telling us ‘You are all set,'” Morrissey said.

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Sutter agrees to plea deal in Brayton Point coal blockade

FALL RIVER — Calling climate change “one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” Bristol County District Attorney Samuel Sutter agreed to a plea deal Monday between his office and two activists arrested last year for blockading the coal-fired Brayton Point power plant in Somerset.

Activists Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward had been planning to use a “climate necessity” defense at trial Monday to argue that the imminent threat of climate change justified their seven-hour blockade of the plant in May 2013.

Instead, Sutter’s office agreed to drop conspiracy charges against the two environmental activists and to reduce other charges of disturbing the peace and motor vessel violations to civil infractions. In return, O’Hara and Ward agreed to pay $2,000 each in restitution to the town of Somerset, where the Brayton Point Coal Plant is located.

Sutter said Monday that the decision “certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers. But it was made equally with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind.

“In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been greatly lacking,” he said. “This is a symbol of our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.”

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About Me

Ariel Wittenberg is the water reporter for E&E News’ Greenwire, covering everything from water pollution to drought to water infrastructure policy. She previously covered transportation, writing about the quirky rules promoting electric vehicle adoption in California, the out-dated tests regulators use to determine fuel economy standards and the environmental and safety implications of self-driving cars. She also wrote about the Pentagon, delving into the defense authorization and budget process,  detailing the challenges facing troops training on protected lands and chronicled the Army’s effort to produce an eco-friendly lead-free bullet.

Ariel previously worked as the environmental reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times in Southeastern Massachusetts.  She spent her days there learning the finer points of wind turbines, toxic waste, public health and state government.

Ariel was a Paul Miller Fellow with the National Press Foundation for 2015 to 2016. She has also received numerous awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, including Rookie of the Year in 2013. She placed first for environmental reporting in 2013, and second place for investigative reporting and science and technology reporting in 2014 and 2012, respectively.

A graduate of Brandeis University, she was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper where her projects included covering the attempted closure of the Rose Art Museum and a four-part series on race relations at the university. She has also been published by Scientific American, Pro Publica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Waltham News Tribune and the Metro West Daily News.

Ariel previously worked as the environmental reporter for the New Bedford Standard-Times in Southeastern Massachusetts.  She spent her days there learning the finer points of wind turbines, toxic waste, public health and state government.

Ariel was a 2015-2016 Paul Miller Fellow with the National Press Foundation. She has also received numerous awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, including being named Rookie of the Year in 2013. She also placed first for environmental reporting in a NENPA competition in 2013 and second for investigative reporting in 2015. In 2014 she placed second and third for investigative and racial issues reporting, respectively.

Prior to working for The Standard Times, Ariel worked at Pro Publica, where she researched campaign finance reform and the Center for Public Integrity, where she covered the nation’s foreclosure crisis. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper where her projects included covering the attempted closure of the Rose Art Museum and a four-part series on race relations at the university. She has also written for the Waltham News Tribune and the Metro West Daily News.

In addition to being a writer, she is also an amateur photographer, as well as a lover of puzzles, owls and wild turkeys.

Click here for copy of my resume.

Sea gulls ruffle feathers in downtown New Bedford

A few years ago, Seamen’s Bethel Volunteer Clifford Roderiques remembers the strangest question he ever got from a tourist: “When do they stop the tape?”

“I said, ‘What tape are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘The tape of the sea gulls, it’s getting annoying,'” Roderiques recalled Friday. “I said to him ‘Turn around, that’s no tape.'”

The gulls were lined up along the Whaling Museum’s roof.

Sea gulls are a unique urban annoyance for those living in New Bedford. While many cities have to contend with pigeons, the Whaling City also must deal with the gulls, which are larger and louder.

Some, like Roderiques, say they don’t mind the white and grey birds, adding they think it adds to the city’s authenticity as a working port. Others say the birds are “flying rats,” squawking loudly and stealing food.

How you feel about the birds may just depend on whether they have defecated on you or something you own.

Take Sue Gonsalves, for example, who works at the New Bedford Merchant.

She said she doesn’t have a problem with the gulls and considers them “part of coastal life.”

“If you’re an outdoor person you shouldn’t have a problem with them,” she said. “Then again, if they dumped on my car all the time maybe I’d feel differently.”

Amy Moss said she hates the birds for that exact reason.

“Of course I don’t like them. I got pooped on,” she said.

Moss works at the convenience store across from the Pleasant Street Bus Station. She said sea gull-droppings are the reason she has to wash her car “at least once a week.”

“When I go up to the garage, it’s feces all over,” she said.

Bird droppings are not the only annoying part about the bird.

Michele Fisher, who said she is homeless, said the birds often steal the food she gets off the soup kitchen trucks. A sea gull even bit her once.

“I thought OK, maybe if I feed them some they’ll leave me the rest, but it doesn’t work,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like birds, but the sea gulls I can’t stand.”

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SRTA partnership began in friendship, ended in feud

In fall 2007, Joseph Cosentino was getting tired of his day job.

An assistant to the clerk magistrate in Taunton, he said the position was wearing on him and his car. Though he loved working in the courthouse, he said, the drives between Taunton and his home in Dartmouth, as well as between courthouses in Eastham and Seekonk, were getting to be too much. He was ready for a change.

So when his friend of 30 years, John George Jr., offered to get him a job as the administrator of SRTA, a position that would come with a $25,000 pay raise and a work vehicle with gas and maintenance included, it didn’t take long for Cosentino to accept, he said.

George was the owner of the Union Street Bus Company and had held the contract to run SRTA’s bus services for more than 20 years.

“He said to me, ‘Look, I’ve done this for 20 years without interference and we are best friends, there’s no reason why we can’t work well together,'” Cosentino recalled this week. “We were like brothers.”

Though it started amicably, relations between Cosentino and George would soon sour. Cosentino said he became increasingly aware of “financial deficiencies” at USBC, telling George that he had to comply with federal regulations. When George had enough of the criticism, Cosentino said, George directed the Southeast Regional Transit Authority’s advisory board to put Cosentino on a leave of absence for the last four months of his contract.

George was indicted this month on charges of embezzling federal funds. George has referred all comments on the charges to his attorney, Thomas Kiley. Kiley declined to comment for this article.

SRTA documents and advisory board members from the time paint a slightly more complicated picture of the 30-year friendship that disintegrated. They say Cosentino was difficult to work with and not competent to manage a transportation authority.

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SRTA board had multiple warnings about financial deficiencies

NEW BEDFORD — Four years ago, Joseph Cosentino wrote a letter to the advisory board of the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority alleging that the Union Street Bus Company was not complying with federal financial requirements.

The letter, sent the day before Cosentino was ousted from his post as SRTA administrator, was the first of six warnings the board would receive alleging that USBC head John George Jr. was not complying with Federal Transit Administration regulations.

But it was not until February 2014, two months after the FTA asked to be reimbursed for $224,000 that had been improperly spent by USBC, that the board decided to act, handing the information over to law enforcement.

George was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office last week, charged with embezzlement for allegedly improperly receiving a pension from SRTA, having SRTA employees work on his personal farm during work hours, using SRTA vehicles for out of state shopping trips and using SRTA funds to buy cell phones and internet for friends, as well as to remodel his kitchen.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who was not in office when George worked for SRTA but is now vice chairman of the board, said Thursday that the FTA’s letter marked the first “substantial allegation” of misconduct at USBC.

But on Sept. 14, 2010, Cosentino sent his own letter to the SRTA board, which was preparing to fire him for what they called “failure to competently carry out the day to day duties of the Administrator’s job.”

Cosentino wrote to the board that George was trying to get him fired because Cosentino had concerns about USBC’s compliance with state and federal law.

“John told me that I was being too hard on him at SRTA,” Cosentino wrote. “I told him that he had to follow the regulatory requirement and that if the Authority found that he was not following the requirements of the FTA, he might not be awarded the operator contract under the upcoming (request for proposals.) He did not deny that he was behind the effort to remove me from office.”

On Sept. 15, the board voted to place Cosentino on administrative leave for the three months remaining in his contract with the transit authority.

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Offshore wind and fishing industries must ‘coexist to survive’


NEW BEDFORD — “Our people know what they’re doing at sea.”

That’s the common refrain of city and state politicians alike as they try to convince industry leaders and the public that New Bedford should be America’s offshore wind hub.

First we were whalers. Then we were fishermen. Next we will be offshore constructing, repairing and maintaining wind turbines.

The refrain was repeated by a city delegation to an offshore wind energy conference in Providence last fall, it was repeated by state legislators as they tried to fight an energy bill that could hurt offshore wind in the spring, and it was repeated by dignitaries as they welcomed the Charles W. Morgan whaleship into port this summer.

But while landlubbers may see offshore wind as simply a promising new industry that could bring new jobs, the fishermen who will have to work along these turbines often see something else.

They see another layer of federal rules and regulations to navigate. In addition to worrying about how many days they can go out to sea, they say they now have to worry about giant steel structures getting in their way and impeding their catch.

“There is a big feeling that this is just another thing encroaching on us,” said seafood consultant Jim Kendall. “But we know we’ll have to coexist to survive.”

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Questions raised about South Terminal management credentials

NEW BEDFORD — With just four months to go before work at South Terminal is complete, state and city officials are questioning whether the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is up to the task of managing the facility.

The marine commerce terminal is being purpose-built to fit the needs of the American offshore wind industry, with Cape Wind already signing a lease option on the yet uncompleted site.

But some, like state Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, who chairs the Joint Committee on Transportation, are worried that MassCEC is ill equipped to manage such a complex site.

“That agency does good energy-related work but I am concerned it does not possess the bench strength to conduct the kind of technical review and evaluation process for management, use and access which should occur for a new $100 million port asset of the commonwealth,” Straus wrote last month in a letter to Rick Sullivan, chief of staff for Gov. Deval Patrick.

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State hires compliance officer to ease South Terminal minority hiring concerns

NEW BEDFORD — The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center has hired a compliance officer to monitor hiring goals at South Terminal in an effort to sooth tensions between the state agency and city minority leaders.

MassCEC announced Tuesday that New Bedford resident Donald Gomes will help monitor minority hiring goals for South Terminal construction. Gomes previously served 14 years as compliance manager for the City of New Bedford.

Tensions between MassCEC and minority leaders have been mounting for more than a year due to concerns about the lack of local and minority workers at the South Terminal construction site.

Bill White, offshore wind director for MassCEC, said Tuesday that employing local residents is “a challenge here.”

“I know our New Bedford numbers are low and there are efforts we are trying to make in order to increase these numbers,” he said. “Those goals are something we may not have lived up to.”

Asked why the state was hiring Gomes with only five months left until South Terminal is complete, White paused before saying there was no one reason or turning point.

“On one level we have done pretty good but we have also seen that we can do better,” he said.

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For bus commuters to Boston, it’s traffic, traffic and more traffic

trafficThe blinker makes a heavy “plink plunk” sound when it flashes as the bus changes lanes on Route 24 on Wednesday evening.

It’s 7:32 p.m. and the roughly 35 riders, many of whom are on their way back from working in Boston, are only halfway home to New Bedford.

For them, to commute to Boston for work is to live three hours each day on the DATTCO bus. That’s 15 hours per week, 780 hours per year.

The blinker’s plunking Wednesday echoes through the otherwise silent coach, as if taunting riders, keeping track of the monotony like a clock.

Plink. Plunk. Plink. Plunk. You’re. Stuck. On. This bus.

Marcy Rebello, 29, of Acushnet, is one of those commuting Wednesday. She doesn’t pay attention to the stop-and-go traffic the bus is battling, instead passing time reviewing a Power Point presentation about population health on her computer.

Rebello, who rode the bus to work a few years ago, started again this month after landing a job at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.

The commute means she leaves her house at around 6 a.m. and often is not home until after 8:30 p.m. It is tiresome, and extraordinarily boring, she says.

But this week she discovered that the DATTCO bus has wi-fi.

“It was like a whole new world,” she says.

That’s because the worst part about commuting is that it just feels like a waste of time, Rebello says.

You’re stuck in a tin can, traveling between different parts of your life, in limbo.

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