Conservation group: Pascagoula an endangered river

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A conservation group says the Pascagoula River in southeast Mississippi is among the 10 most endangered rivers in America because of plans to use its water to dig a giant cavern for the national strategic petroleum reserve project.

American Rivers announced its list of endangered rivers Tuesday and called for the Obama administration to halt the U.S. Department of Energy plan to increase the reserve by 160 million barrels of oil using a Mississippi salt dome for storage.

The agency is completing a supplemental environmental impact statement that approves the plan to draw 50 million gallons of water a day from the Pascagoula over five years. The water would be used to create a cavern in the salt dome near Richton. Similar storage areas have been created in Louisiana and Texas.

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“It’s like they’re doing something hasty,” said B.G. Thompson, a retired chief statistician with the National Marine Fisheries Service and a consultant with the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama. “They’ve got a short time frame to do it and they’re cutting corners every which way you can think of in doing it.”

DOE released a newsletter last month outlining research that appears to clear the way to use the Pascagoula in the project, though it still must receive permit approval from several authorities, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies. Officials originally planned to use water from the Leaf River, a tributary of the Pascagoula. After resistance, they settled on the Pascagoula and are in the final stages of preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement.

There is strong resistance to using the Pascagoula as well, and an unlikely coalition of politicians, conservationists, fishermen and recreational users has formed to fight the project. They fear removing fresh water from the Pascagoula at Merrill will harm threatened and endangered species and the entire ecosystem, and believe dumping heavily salinated water into the Gulf of Mexico could harm fisheries and the delicate Mississippi Sound.

“This project would squander billions of taxpayer dollars on oil infrastructure at a time when we should be investing in nonpolluting 21st century energy sources and protecting healthy rivers like the Pascagoula that give our communities good jobs, clean water and so much more,” Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, said in a news release.

In the “Richton Report” the DOE cited studies showing the project would not greatly affect the flow or quality of water in the Pascagoula, home to threatened creatures like the gulf sturgeon and the pearl darter. And computer models indicated the salinated water would disperse quickly once it is pumped through a pipeline and released beyond Mississippi’s barrier islands.

Ppponents worry that changing the salt level in the gulf will have unintended consequences that could cost millions of dollars, outweighing any benefit Mississippi might gain from jobs created by the project. An American Rivers news release says recreational marine fishermen contribute $102 million to Mississippi’s economy each year while the commercial marine fishery provides 15,000 jobs to the area.

Beyond the economic and ecological damage the project might bring on the Pascagoula, others see it desecrating one of the nation’s most beautiful places. State Sen. Debbie Dawkins pushed through legislation in 2004 to include the river in the Scenic Stream Stewardship Program.

“And I didn’t do that for the Department of Energy to come down here and screw it up,” she said. “It is a treasure.”

The Democrat from Pass Christian spoke at a news conference announcing the listing Tuesday morning in Gautier. She believes opposition to the plan is growing. And that opposition comes from all quarters, which she believes is another sign planners aren’t hearing the message being sent.

“We’ve had a hard time getting all the facts and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Dawkins said. “To begin with this is a half-baked idea that’s left over from the previous federal administration that just sort of took on a life of it’s own because it’s one of those big projects that got started and now they don’t want to stop it for no good reason.”