PORT MANATEE – Representatives of Port Manatee and Port Dolphin are negotiating over the placement of a controversial proposed natural gas pipeline, according to Manatee County officials.
"They came to us with their project and we’re trying to meet their requirements as we did with Gulfstream," said Port Manatee Director Dave McDonald, referring to an existing natural gas pipeline running from Port Manatee to Mobile Bay, Ala.
McDonald met with Port Dolphin representatives last week to discuss the county’s concerns about the proposed project, Manatee County Port Authority Chairman Joe McClash announced Thursday at a port authority meeting.
"There is no meeting of the minds yet" between Port Dolphin and Port Manatee on the pipeline location, McClash said.
Port Dolphin Energy LLC proposes to build a floating port 28 miles west of Anna Maria Island in the Gulf of Mexico where tankers would convert liquefied natural gas to vaporized gas and offload it into a 42-mile-long pipeline coming ashore at Port Manatee, where it would connect to the Gulfstream Natural Gas System and Tampa Electric Co.
County officials recently learned that the proposed pipeline path would plow sand borrow for the county’s and Longboat Key’s beach renourishment programs, and will impact both marine and land habitats.
A spokesman for the Houston-based Port Dolphin, a subsidiary of Norwegian company Hoegh LNG, has called the project’s impact on sand resources "negligible."
Searching for equivalent sand elsewhere could cost Manatee County $38 million to $53 million over the next 40 years and Longboat Key $4 million, according to Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Conservation Lands Management Department.
As a result, finding a new sand source may require taxing Anna Maria Island residents, he said.
Company could pay
Alternately, Port Dolphin could be charged for any increased cost, suggested state Rep. Bill Galvano, who said his staff is beginning to analyze the project now that the legislative session has ended.
"The concern is not to negatively impact the Island communities environmentally or from a tourism perspective," he said, adding that he may organize a town hall meeting on the project, which caught many officials unaware.
When port authority members, who also sit as the Manatee County Commission, inquired about the project last week, McClash responded that the port director is aware of the county’s concerns and that the county attorney’s office is coordinating strategy during the negotiations.
"I guarantee that those concerns are being addressed," he said. "We would rather have staff work with them outside of a public forum."
In contrast, McClash suggested that Port Dolphin should have done a better job of informing the public about its project.
"The biggest disappointment so far with Dolphin is that Gulfstream did a good job to resolve things before they reached an adversarial position," McClash said, while Port Dolphin "decided to take a path that was a little different than the one we encouraged them to take."
He encouraged Port Dolphin officials to hold public meetings to address concerns about the environment, fishing impacts and other issues.
"We encourage them to get back and work with the public as we encourage all our partners to do," he said.
McDonald pledged to emphasize the need for public involvement in ongoing negotiations.
When the Gulfstream pipeline was in the planning stages in the 1990s, the company invited representatives from environmental groups to public meetings and shared details about its project, said Arlene Flisik, conservation chair of the Manatee County Audubon Society.
As a result, Gulfstream, Port Manatee and Audubon worked as partners to transform a spoil island off Port Manatee into a $7.3 million, 60-acre bird sanctuary.
"I assumed they (Port Dolphin) would be doing the same thing," she said.
Other pipeline problems
Several groups are scrambling to learn about Port Dolphin’s proposal before the June 2 deadline for public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement released in April by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Maritime Administration, which have the initial permitting authority over the project.
Numerous other federal and state agency permits also would be necessary for the project to materialize.
While spills, leaks, fires and warm water discharges are of concern, several organizations cite the location of the pipe as their main concern, including the Maitland-based Save the Manatee Club.
"We want to make sure those pipes aren’t laid over a seagrass bed," which are feeding grounds for manatees and important nurseries for aquatic life, Science and Conservation Director Katie Tripp said.
While Gulf water will be used to cool tanker engines and will be discharged back into the Gulf at warmer temperatures, she said that manatees – which are attracted to warm water outflows in the wintertime – typically stay closer to shore than the proposed port and probably would not be significantly impacted.
However, the cooling system is of concern because the intake of Gulf water will entrap marine life, said Suzanne Cooper, principal planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s Agency on Bay Management, whose Natural Resources/Environmental Impact Review Committee heard a presentation by Port Dolphin last week.
The most significant unanswered question is why Port Dolphin needs to build its own pipeline when Gulfstream’s pipeline is available for them to tap into, she said.
"Gulfstream says there is capacity in their line," she said, which is an open access pipeline, while Port Dolphin’s proposal is to build its own proprietary pipeline.
Gulfstream has filed comments with the U.S. Coast Guard objecting to the proposed Port Dolphin pipeline route and Port Dolphin’s proposal to connect with Gulfstream’s onshore pipeline, suggesting instead that Port Dolphin tap Gulfstream’s pipeline offshore for safety and environmental reasons.
The construction of the proposed pipeline could impact hard bottom communities of marine animals, including corals and sponges, Cooper said.
According to the project’s impact statement, 66 acres of benthic habitat would be permanently lost and 234 acres of bottom-dwelling benthic communities would experience "minor to moderate short-term and long-term adverse impacts" during construction.
"We have seen no mitigation plan," Cooper said, adding that the group is compiling its questions and will request that it be involved in the permit review stage of the project.
Effects on fishing
The proposed pipeline could affect commercial and recreational fishing because of its impacts on marine life, said Jeff Rester, habitat coordinator with the joint habitat program of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.
"There are some concerns over the project due to the installation of a pipeline through hard bottom habitat and seagrass," said Rester, who is also preparing to file comments on the project by the June 2 deadline.
"The impact on the hard bottom habitat affects biological resources."
In addition, the tanker engine cooling system intake could cause a significant loss of eggs and larvae in addition to small marine creatures, he said.
"The whole idea of it overwhelms me," said Don Chaney, conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Sarasota-Manatee chapter and a member of the Healthy Gulf Coalition, who, like many others, is still learning about the project. "It’s incredible to think they could do it."
Public comments invited before June 2
Comments on the proposed Port Dolphin project should be sent to the Federal Docket Management Facility before June 2 by one of the following methods:
• Mail or delivery to the Federal Docket Management Facility, Department of Transportation, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20590
• Phone: 202-366-9329
• Fax: 202-493-2251
• E-mail from Web-site: www.regulations.gov. Enter USCG–2007–28532 in the "search" field, then click on "send a comment or submission."
Submissions should include name, address and docket number USCG–2007–28532.
Faxed or hand-delivered submissions must be unbound, no larger than 81⁄2 by 11 inches and suitable for copying and electronic scanning.
All submissions will be posted without changes at www.regulations.gov and will include all personal information provided.