The average beachgoer who sets up a chair and an umbrella on Anna
Maria Island or Longboat Key has no idea what lies beneath.
Clean, white sand doesn’t just get washed up onto the beach by
Mother Nature. It takes barges, dredges, pipes, bulldozers, permits,
and money – lots of money.
It takes exploration, too: Geological surveys, marine life surveys,
plant life surveys, tidal surveys, depth surveys, archeological resource
surveys, and money – lots of money.
Then there are the engineering consultants, the permitting agencies,
the governmental bodies, the lawyers, and money – lots more money
– all spent to prevent the beaches from eroding and taking the tourism
industry with them.
In the case of Port Dolphin, clean, white sand also could mean
money lost for avoiding it and money gained for plowing through it.
With so much money at stake, it’s clear why so many lines have
been drawn in the underwater sand off Anna Maria Island by Port Dolphin,
the town of Longboat Key and Manatee County.
Port proposal refined
Port Dolphin, a subsidiary of a Norwegian shipping firm, is applying
to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the U.S. Coast
Guard for the first of several necessary permits to build a floating
liquid natural gas port 28 miles off Anna Maria Island. The Houston-based
company plans to build two submersible mooring buoys about three
miles apart where tankers would convert their cargoes of liquefied
natural gas into vaporized natural gas, then pump it through an
underwater pipeline to Port Manatee to supply electric companies.
Port Dolphin adjusted its first pipeline route in 2007 because
the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was concerned
that its path would destroy marine life in the Terra Ceia Aquatic
Preserve in Tampa Bay.
Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key and Manatee County officials expressed
concern about the second route because of its potential impact on
underwater sources of sand currently mined and used to renourish
Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island beaches.
Manatee County and Longboat Key officials estimated that the second
proposed pipeline route would have cost the county between $38-53
million over the next 40 years to find sand, or around $1 million
per year, and cost Longboat Key an estimated $4 million.
The route also was heavily criticized for potential environmental
impacts on marine life.
Port Dolphin responded in December 2008 with a third route addressing
potential sand sources, engineering and construction constraints,
hard bottom features, live bottom habitats and archaeological and
other mapped environmental features. The latest route affects about
1.4 percent of already identified beach-compatible sand deposits
and avoids all permitted sand resources, according to the company.
Over the past two weeks, Longboat Key officials approached the
three Anna Maria Island city commissions for support in objecting
to this route. Officials are supportive,
but some have expressed skepticism about their power to persuade
Port Dolphin to adopt a fourth pipeline route, based on the company’s
response so far.
"We already rerouted at the request of Longboat Key and Manatee
County," said Port Dolphin spokesman Harry Costello, of the
Tampa public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. "Port Dolphin
has made a very large investment in rerouting as it is."
A flood of paperwork
Last week, a torrent of reports, letters and memos about the pipeline
route from Port Dolphin, two opposing engineering firms, two opposing
Washington D.C. law firms, the Longboat Key mayor and the Manatee
County beach renourishment director flew across Web mail, Web sites
and fax machines.
At the center of the flurry is a report by Jacksonville-based Taylor
Engineering, hired by Port Dolphin as an "independent consultant," a
designation scoffed at by Longboat Key and Manatee County officials,
to assess sand quality within 30 miles of its proposed pipeline route.
The company initially had offered to allow Manatee County and Longboat
Key officials to have a say in choosing the consultant and its scope
"That never happened," Longboat Key Town Manager Bruce
St. Denis said. "They came to us with the ‘independent third
party review’ already done. It’s not independent. We didn’t even
know the criteria they gave them."
"Taylor is doing what it’s assigned to do," agreed Charlie
Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Natural Resources Department
in charge of beach renourishment. "They’re only being asked
to look at Port Dolphin’s corridor, not all options."
The Taylor report concludes that sand surrounding 93 percent of
the route is not white enough or fine enough to be used on local
beaches, and that the pipeline would impact about 711,000 cubic yards
of beach quality sand.
Another Port Dolphin report, a "white paper" released last
month, further defends its proposed pipeline route, dismissing local
government suggestions that it should tie into the existing Gulfstream
Natural Gas System pipeline.
Port Dolphin officials have said that their business plan is to
compete, not co-locate, with Gulfstream.
A separate pipeline would have the capacity to supply seven times
more natural gas than would be possible by connecting to the Gulfstream
pipeline, which already is heavily used, according to the report.
In addition, the two systems are incompatible, since vessels designed
to carry Port Dolphin’s natural gas are unable to pump it into the
Gulfstream pipeline at Gulfstream’s maximum allowable operating pressure,
the report states.
The report concludes that its proposed pipeline route fairly balances
sand issues against national security, energy sufficiency and environmental
The Taylor report, coupled with Port Dolphin’s past refusal to
share what it has called confidential data with the town on its underwater
geological surveys, has forced the town to respond through the formal
permitting process, St. Denis said.
Fourth route proposed
Longboat Key has responded to the two Port Dolphin reports with
a suggestion for yet another pipeline route.
"We’re not talking about a major reroute," St. Denis said. "Their
economic benefit will still be realized if they move the pipe, and
our opposition goes away."
A report by Coastal Planning and Engineering, a consultant for
both Longboat Key and Manatee County, charges that Port Dolphin’s
Taylor report understates the volume of impacted beach-compatible
sand resources by a factor of four to minimize the perceived impact
of the pipeline.
Port Dolphin’s white paper, meanwhile, makes the point a different
way by exaggerating the volume of potential sand that would not be
impacted by the company’s proposed pipeline route, according to Coastal.
In the Taylor report, Coastal asserts, Port Dolphin has left out
an area called "F2," which potentially contains a large
quantity of usable sand.
Longboat Key’s suggested route, near the already-impacted Gulfstream
pipeline corridor to the north of Port Dolphin’s revised route, would
avoid all of the sand resources in the Taylor report, and also would
avoid the F2 area that was not in the report, according to Coastal.
"We have the support of the three (Anna Maria) Island cities
and the (Manatee) County Commission and the (Longboat Key) Town Commission" to
place the pipeline near the Gulfstream corridor, St. Denis said.
The town’s Washington, D.C. law firm, Patton Boggs, wrote MARAD
and the U.S. Coast Guard urging them to require Port Dolphin to choose
the fourth route as a condition of approving their port permit.
Alleging that Port Dolphin has known for a year that its proposed
pipeline route would cut through the F2 area, the law firm called
Port Dolphin’s actions a "pattern of deception," and formally
objected to its preferred route.
"Port Dolphin has done its utmost to hold the town at arm’s
length while trying to lay the groundwork for approval of the pipeline
location without having to (a) examine the true impacts of the proposed
route on mineable beach sand, including in area F2, or (b) study
the alternative low-impact route proposed by Longboat Key. Enough
is enough, and MARAD should now direct Port Dolphin to relocate the
pipeline to the low-impact corridor."
Sacrificing the F2 area would cost Longboat Key significantly more
money to locate new sand sources, and would fuel conflicts over sand
among Longboat and Manatee and Pinellas counties, which also are
searching for sand, the firm wrote.
Longboat Key spent $500,000 last year and will spend $500,000 this
year to find and permit sand sources, St. Denis said.
The town also has spent more than $250,000 on legal analysis and
engineering studies to find a reasonable compromise to allow Port
Dolphin’s project to move forward while protecting the region’s sand
sources, Longboat Key Mayor Lee Rothenberg wrote Manatee County Chair
Gwen Brown on May 28, expressing thanks for the county’s support.
County changing course?
But Manatee County may be changing course, according to Hunsicker.
"We’re starting to realize that the agencies that will be making
the decisions are not the Manatee County board of commissioners," he
said, explaining that the sand resources are in state waters, not
under the county’s jurisdiction.
The sand issue and the many environmental issues raised in the
Coast Guard’s draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding fisheries,
threatened species, pollution and other concerns are for state agencies
and the governor to decide, he said.
"The pipeline has to thread the needle of the different resources
that have to be protected," he said.
The flip side of the green issue also has to be considered – economics.
The potential economic impact at stake for Port Manatee and Manatee
County if Port Dolphin’s pipeline project is built is significant,
particularly in the current economic climate, Hunsicker said.
"We’re getting down to the nuts and bolts of whether we want
the company’s business," he said. "It’s a business decision
for the port."
In a May 28 memo to the Manatee County Commission, Hunsicker wrote
that Port Dolphin will create 82 new local jobs during the 18-month
construction of the pipeline, generate $5 million in short-term benefits
for Port Manatee and have a $485 million economic impact over the
life of the pipeline.
In light of the state Legislature’s consideration earlier this
year of a shelved plan that would have allowed oil and gas drilling
in the Gulf, a natural gas port does not seem as objectionable, he
said, adding, "This isn’t a nuclear power plant that we’re trying
to keep out of our neighborhood."
Meanwhile, Port Dolphin’s Washington D.C. law firm, Bruder Gentile
and Marcoux, is urging MARAD to speed the permit process along by
not requiring the Coast Guard to make a revised draft Environmental
Impact Statement, which would subject the company’s newest proposed
pipeline route to the same exhaustive environmental analysis as its
Port Dolphin’s port licensing application will require public hearings,
expected to be scheduled later this year. Several subsequent state
and federal permits also are required before the port could be built.
The Manatee County Commission was scheduled to discuss Port Dolphin
in a workshop on Tuesday, June 2.