LNG is on Path of Fish Sanctuary
by Cassandra Profita
Daily Astorian, November 3, 2008
Study reveals area around Bradwood Landing is popular spot for salmon
Juvenile chinook salmon swimming down the Columbia River often turn a corner at Clifton Channel, about 20 miles upriver from Astoria, and enter the marshy backwaters that meander through a cluster of islands between Bradwood Landing and Svensen.
There, they find a slower current, lots of critters to eat and refuge from predators.
It's a great place for salmon fry to bulk up for their journey into the ocean, said fish biologist Curtis Roegner of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And research shows about 15 percent of all the out-migrating salmon in the river choose that back-channel route.
But to get there, the fish have to swim past Bradwood Landing, where NorthernStar Natural Gas Inc. of Houston has proposed to build a $650 million liquefied natural gas facility.
Over the past six years - starting before NorthernStar announced its development in 2005 - Roegner has been sampling the fish at Bradwood Landing for NOAA's Point Adams Research Lab in Hammond.
He's found the site to be popular year-round among chinook salmon less than a year old, and he suspects some of the fish are wild.
Roegner is in the process of analyzing the salmon's genetics, which should indicate where they are coming from.
"The theory is these are wild fish from cold, upriver streams," he said. "If it's true, it would be significant because we're trying to save wild salmon."
Protecting salmon is one of the top concerns among opponents of the Bradwood Landing LNG project. If approved, it would require dredging 46 acres of Clifton Channel, taking millions of gallons of river water for ship ballast and engine-cooling, and also discharging treated industrial water into the estuary.
The project has received a conditional approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But NOAA has yet to begin the formal process of issuing its Biological Opinion, the federal ruling on the project's impacts to threatened and endangered species such as salmon.
NOAA, the states of Oregon and Washington and regional tribes have protested the FERC approval of the project, saying the September decision was premature in part because it was made before the Biological Opinion process had begun.
LNG site is also salmon habitat
To do the sampling at the Bradwood site, Roegner and other researchers use 30-meter-wide purse seine nets to count fish and test their stomach contents and DNA.
They've found about 85 percent of the fish at the site are three-spine stickleback and about half of the other fish - 7 percent of the total - are chinook salmon.
"That's pretty significant," he said. "It's the next highest population of fish at the site."
In one tow, Roegner's team regularly catches more than 100 juvenile chinook; their biggest tows have caught up to 600. Most of the chinook salmon are fry or sub-yearlings, fish that are less than one year old.
"These young guys are really using the backwater, low-velocity, food-rich habitat to grow," said Roegner. "They spend more time there as they move through the system. They're eating insects and using the estuary habitat."
Though he has found big rushes of salmon at the site in the spring and fewer fish in the winter, Roegner said he's actually seeing chinook at Bradwood Landing throughout the year.
From January through March 2002-07, nearly 100 percent of the fish caught at the Bradwood site were chinook fry less than one month old and less than 60 millimeters long.
"It seems like it's an area where smaller fish are using the backwater area late in the season," said Roegner. "These might be wild fish. It's hard to imagine which hatchery would be releasing fish at that time."
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has pointed to Roegner's research as one of many reasons why the federal energy regulators should reject the Bradwood Landing LNG facility proposal.
Julie Carter, a policy analyst for Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the tribes are not opposed to LNG as a bridge fuel, but they do oppose the Bradwood project because of its location and the potential impacts to chinook salmon.
"The NOAA study re-affirmed our positions," she said. "This is an inappropriate development. It's large-scale industrial development that will have significant impacts to fish. There is a great deal of abundance of small sub-yearling chinook in the location of Bradwood Landing, and they're in that water for most of the year. It's really hard to figure out how you can mitigate for that."
Project analyses still under way
NorthernStar has pledged to mitigate the impacts of the Bradwood project and proposed a Salmon Enhancement Initiative that would direct up to $59 million to boost salmon populations in the region. The initiative would provide $7 million for salmon restoration projects during three years of construction and $1.3 million per year over the 40-year life of the facility. Company officials say the program could improve salmon survival by 1.77 million juvenile fish per year if their dollars are matched three to one by public funds.
But FERC hasn't completed its biological assessment of the project's impacts to species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. When that document is complete, it will be reviewed for impacts to marine species by NOAA Fisheries, which has 135 days to reach a conclusion.
The resulting Biological Opinion - an up or down ruling on risk to threatened and endangered species - will be the final word on whether the project will jeopardize salmon survival.
According to the environmental analyses already completed, the Bradwood Landing project would affect between 58 and 79 acres of critical habitat for 12 species of salmonids, including upper and lower Columbia River chinook, upper Willamette River chinook and Snake River chinook.
The terminal and 36-mile transmission pipeline would affect three critical spawning streams for fall chinook in the Lower Columbia-Clatskanie Subbasin: Hunt Creek, Plympton Creek and the Clatskanie River.
Joe Desmond, spokesman for NorthernStar, said his company plans to go above and beyond the required mitigation to offset the impacts of the Bradwood project.
"We've proposed a series of voluntary measures that, taken as a whole, once they become binding on the project, are all designed to provide a net environmental benefit," he said.
As part of its mitigation plans, the company would restore 240 acres downstream from the project site at Svensen Island and return 65 acres of diked areas to tidal marsh and off-channel habitat. It would also install screens to reduce the number of fish that get entrained when the LNG tankers take in river water for ballast and engine-cooling.
A study of fish entrainment released by NorthernStar in July showed that without screening, the water intakes at Bradwood would entrain 7,800 salmon annually, and 3,600 of those would be threatened or endangered species.
Critics say even with screens, too many young salmon at the Bradwood site will get sucked into the ships and die.
If NOAA makes a "no jeopardy" conclusion on the Bradwood project's impacts to listed salmon, the company will still need, among other permits, state authorization to take river water for industrial uses and to release treated water.
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