December 3, 2007

Salt Dome Project Could Harm River, Ocean Life

Dome's likely casualties: Seafood, rare species

A plan to use the Pascagoula River or Leaf River to hollow out the Richton salt dome has been denounced by local officials, conservationists, scientists and recreational users as a potential environmental and economic catastrophe based on faulty science.

The Department of Energy plan calls for drawing 50 million gallons of fresh water each day for five years to dissolve salt in the underground cavern near Hattiesburg. One hundred sixty million gallons of oil will then be pumped in, to be used if the nation's oil supply is threatened. The brine created from the mining process will be dumped into the Mississippi Sound, close to Horn Island.

The original environmental assessment was drawn using the Leaf River, which joins the Chickasawhay River to form the headwaters of the Pascagoula River. But many questioned the use of a small river to draw such a large amount of water.

A short time later the U.S. Geological Survey proposed a plan to study water-flow parameters for the Pascagoula River instead. DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said the agency has not decided if it will do the extra environmental assessment needed to use the Pascagoula River. Jerry Cain of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality believes DOE has not yet applied for permits to begin the project.

A state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks official is concerned about the water-flow study. He said many people believe the preferred method used to determine how low water flow can be in a river without harming animals is flawed. The calculation does not apply directly to animal safety and could suggest a less-than-safe lower boundary for water in the river. This may produce prolonged drought conditions in the Pascagoula River.

Endangered species may be threatened

The Pascagoula River basin is home to species that exist nowhere else in the world. Gopher tortoises and black pine snakes live along the proposed pipelines, said Rebecca Stowe, director of the Nature Conservancy's office in Merrill. The river itself is home to the endangered Gulf sturgeon and yellow-blotched map turtle, and the pearl darter, a fish whose status is under consideration. Of the sites under consideration for the new reserve, DOE documents say only development of the Richton site could harm endangered species.

Yellow-blotched map turtles depend on flowing water to bring them their food, said Will Selman, a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi who studies the turtle. Selman and other scientists worry that drawing 50 million gallons a day from the Pascagoula River could reverse the flow, causing salt water to creep north, encroaching on marsh and freshwater wildlife.

Katrina has already shown the effect of salt water on freshwater life, said Tony Kennedy, former director of the south chapter of the Mississippi Bass Federation. Seawater pushed up the Pascagoula killed huge numbers of freshwater fish. The impact of Katrina on the Pascagoula River is still being determined, he said, so why move forward with the Richton plan?

The brine water will be shot through a diluting machine into a major migration pathway for young shrimp and other economically important sea life, said fisheries expert Mark Peterson of the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab. Many creatures important to the seafood industry reproduce offshore, and their young depend on currents to get to estuaries near shore, where they mature. Areas near Horn Island could see a large jump in salinity from the salt dome plan, forcing many young off their path. Some creatures may die. The brine will be heavier than the water around it, he said. It will sink to the lowest point in the Sound, which is the Pascagoula Ship Channel. Ships passing through could move the water northward, into the estuaries and the river.

"As for pipelines carrying brine running along freshwater bodies, all you have to do is have one 36-inch pipe break. Everything surrounding it would be killed," Peterson said. The current assessment, he said, doesn't take into account all the "what-ifs."

Jeff Grimes, assistant director of water resources for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans conservation group, said assessing the Pascagoula River will take two more years; he's concerned the DOE will move ahead without determining the impact of a 50-million-gallon-a-day draw off a river that already feeds several industries downstream, including oil and paper mills. He wants DOE to fund the two-year study.

Stowe said if the new assessment of the Pascagoula River goes forward, she wants the Nature Conservancy and the public to be more involved.


Endangered list

The Pascagoula River headwaters are home to several endangered and threatened animals.

A plan to draw water from the river to hollow out the Richton salt dome could change the river's water quality, affecting food abundance and reproductive success. The Department of Energy's original environmental study was on the Leaf River, a tributary that forms the Pascagoula River headwaters.

According to the report, the following animals living in the river may be affected.

--Gulf sturgeon: Sturgeon live in both the salt and fresh water. They grow to eight feet long and feed on small fish and invertebrates in estuaries. They reproduce in fresh water along the clay and gravel bottoms of rivers, and spend their first two years in riverways. Young could get caught in pump filters. Their Pascagoula River habitat is also endangered.

--Yellow-blotched map turtle: The turtle is found only in Mississippi along the Pascagoula River and tributaries. It nests on land, and is thus sensitive both to changes in water quality, which affects its food supply, and land quality, which affects nests and hatchlings. The turtle is sometimes captured and sold as a collector's item because of its scarcity.

--Pearl darter: The pearl darter is under consideration for endangered status. The 2 1/2 -inch fish is found only in the Pascagoula River basin, and its only known spawn site is in the Leaf River near Hattiesburg. It is extremely vulnerable to changes in water quality, and young and adults may pass through pump screens and die.