Official: State will recommend change of water source for salt domes

Published 5:19 pm Thursday, February 14, 2008

State officials will recommend saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico be used to carve caverns in the Richton salt domes for oil storage rather than freshwater from the Pascagoula or Leaf rivers.

If federal officials follow the recommendation, it could remove some of the opposition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve project that has drawn criticism over its potential environmental effects on Mississippi’s coast and the Gulf.

Bill Walker, executive director of the state Department of Marine Resources, told the House Marine Resources Committee on Wednesday that three of the four reserve salt dome projects that already exist in other states used Gulf water with no problems.

“It can be done and it seems logical,” Walker said.

The U.S. Department of Energy chose the Richton domes in south Mississippi’s Perry County after Congress mandated an expansion of the reserve set aside for national emergencies such as hurricanes or terrorist attacks.

Congress recently allotted $25 million to purchase real estate and rights of way for the project, which will use the Richton site to hold 160 million barrels of oil. When on line, about five years after salt mining begins in 2014, the national petroleum reserve will be at 1 billion barrels.

The plan currently calls for drawing 50 million gallons of water a day over five years from the Leaf River. But Walker says federal officials will announce next week a change in preference to the Pascagoula River after finding the drawdown might have damaged water quality and affected threatened and endangered animals living along the Leaf.

Rep. Frances Fredericks, D-Gulfport, said many residents in south Mississippi have expressed concerns about the project “out of fear.” She said if the Energy Department listens to the state’s recommendation, it may help allay those fears.

“I think that’s great,” said Fredericks, the committee chairwoman. “I think we want to protect the Pascagoula River as much as possible.”

Fredericks wasn’t so sure about the second part of the plan. After the water is used to carve oil storage areas in the subterranean salt formations, it will be pumped into the Gulf through pipelines.

While the waste water will have elevated salt levels about 10 times that of surrounding waters, Walker said studies of the Texas and Louisiana sites showed no adverse effects on Gulf fish or plant life.

When asked in an interview if she worried about the increased salt levels, Fredericks said, “I do, but they keep trying to convince us. I’m still not completely convinced.”

Steve Shepard, Gulf Coast group chairman of the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club, said there’s good reason for Fredericks’ concern.

The Energy Department’s plan to pump the waste water through a pipeline to an exit point about 7 miles beyond Mississippi’s coastal barrier islands and 15 miles from the Pascagoula coastline “is an absolutely terrible idea,” Shepard said.

“We’ll have a definite impact on the fishery out there,” he said.

Walker’s agency, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be responsible for granting permits on the project.

Officials will acquire property and lay the groundwork for the project until construction of the facility begins in 2010, Walker said.

Both Walker and Fredericks said they have heard complaints about the project from both environmentalists and private citizens. A handful of local governments also have asked for changes to the plan.

Many feel they have not had enough time to learn about and comment on the $4 billion project because officials began discussing it shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast in 2005.

“Nobody knew about (the proposal) and everybody was too busy to oppose it,” said Becky Gillette, the former chairwoman of the Mississippi Sierra Club.

Walker said there will be time for more public comment with the change to the Pascagoula River plan, which will require a supplemental assessment to the environmental impact statement already conducted by the Energy Department.

Critics of the plan to take river water say there are already several uses that draw down the Pascagoula, including the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, has introduced a bill that would require the state to change the way it defines low-water conditions. When the Pascagoula drops below a certain level, the Department of Environmental Quality restricts or discontinues drainage for land uses.

Members of the Marine Resources Committee directed Walker to draw up a resolution for the House to consider that would ask Energy Department officials to take water from the Gulf.

Shepard said the Sierra Club also has an action plan. While moving away from the Pascagoula River would be an improvement, wastewater dumping in the Gulf and the destruction of Pascagoula swamp lands remain steep obstacles.

If alternatives to the current plan aren’t considered, he said the group would likely sue.

“The Sierra Club is certainly not satisfied if they leave the plan the way it is, but pull water from the Gulf of Mexico,” Shepard said.