HOLMES BEACH – What exactly did Port Dolphin find while surveying 12,400 acres at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico off Anna Maria Island last year?
The question was asked several times in several ways by officials of the town of Longboat Key at a Barrier Island Elected Officials meeting last Wednesday.
But they left frustrated and skeptical about Port Dolphin officials’ consistent answers – for commercial, competitive and legal reasons, it’s confidential.
"More sand is there that has not been identified yet. We asked for information, and you didn’t give it to us," Town Manager Bruce St. Denis said.
Some survey data is confidential, but the sand identified in the surveys ranges from light gray to dark brown, and is not suitable for beach renourishment, Port Dolphin’s German Castro said. He added that in-depth reviews to be conducted by multiple local, state and federal agencies during the permitting process should alleviate concerns.
But what’s under the dark sand could be fine, white beach sand, town officials say, adding that the town is willing to pay its own consultant to do studies of the sand deposits if Port Dolphin would share its data.
The Houston-based company attended the meeting to announce a proposed change in its original pipeline path, which was slated to plow through a high quality underwater sand reserve off the north end of Anna Maria Island.
In response to local official’s concerns, Port Dolphin surveyed the area and curved its new path away from the reserve used by Manatee County to renourish Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key beaches.
"We heard the community and we stepped up to get away from the sand resources," Port Dolphin spokesman Harry Costello said.
But Longboat Key officials said Wednesday that the new pipeline path could run through undiscovered reserves of fine, white sand, which is hard to come by and costly to find - the town spent has spent $1.5 million to find sand reserves since 2004.
Cities on Florida’s east coast are going as far as the Bahamas to get beach compatible sand, according to Longboat Key Mayor Hal Lenobel, who wrote the Manatee County Commission on Jan. 7 asking for support.
Thousand-foot buffer zones around the pipeline required by regulatory agencies also could reduce the feasibility of using some of the sand reserves, Lenobel said.
Castro replied that buffer zones are typically only 50 feet on either side of the pipeline.
Assistant Manatee County Attorney Sarah Schenk asked Port Dolphin to consider contracting with the county on the size of the buffer zone.
"It’s not reasonable to expect us to wait a year to find out what the buffer is," she said, referring to the length of the permitting process.
"The tradeoff seems to be it will cost us in sand or money, and they get their pipeline," St. Denis said, insisting that Port Dolphin reveal its findings.
"I suspect you’re balancing the economic reasons against our concerns," added Longboat Key Commissioner George Spoll.
The tension began on Nov. 18, when Port Dolphin met with officials from Longboat Key, Manatee County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and their consultants to show them three potential pipeline routes that would minimize the impact on currently permitted sand reserves.
While the company allowed them to look at information on computer screens, no one was allowed to download information or take photographs, St. Denis said.
It’s not the first time the town and the company have clashed. Last year, the town hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to dig up legal inadequacies in the pipeline plan. Patton Boggs filed a 26-page document with the U.S. Coast Guard criticizing the agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which detailed every aspect of the plan from engineering to the environment. A final EIS will be drafted later this year based on the new pipeline route.
The proposed Port Dolphin Energy Liquefied Natural Gas Deepwater Port would consist of two submersible mooring buoys in the Gulf of Mexico about three miles apart, 28 miles west of Anna Maria Island in 100 feet of water. Tankers would convert their cargoes of liquid natural gas into vaporized natural gas at the floating port. The gas would then be pumped into the proposed 42-mile pipeline, which would come ashore at Port Manatee to supply electric companies.