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Passions fueled

Conservationists and anglers are protesting a planned LNG facility off Baja.

October 25, 2005|Scott Doggett | Times Staff Writer

ANGLERS and environmental groups charge that an energy company's plan to build a $650-million liquefied natural gas terminal near the Coronados Islands in Mexican waters will harm marine life and a prized sport fishery just 18 miles south of San Diego.

The project, dubbed Terminal GNL Mar Adentro de Baja California by Chevron Corp., calls for erecting an offshore platform to unload tankers carrying compressed natural gas from the Pacific Rim and distribute it via pipelines to California and Baja California.

Chevron officials say that the terminal -- one of a half-dozen liquefied natural gas terminals proposed for the West Coast -- is vital to meet rising energy demands in the region. Authorities in Mexico City have approved the project, and Chevron is seeking local permits to begin work.

The company is currently surveying the construction site and performing environmental studies, company spokeswoman Nicole Hodgson said. "We're doing a lot of work at the moment to make sure that there would be no unacceptable risks to the environment," she said.

But fishermen say the project threatens access to some of the best fishing off the Southern California coast.

The four-island Coronados archipelago, eight miles southwest from Tijuana, is a magnet for tuna, yellowtail and calico bass. The LNG terminal, which would be built 540 yards from the largest island, would restrict access for fishermen, Hodgson said. She added that a decision on the size of the restricted area had not been made.

San Diego-based sportfishing fleets, laden with anglers from California and across the nation, have long frequented the islands. "That is where I make my house payment. That is where I make my car payment," said Ryan Bostian, captain of the Mission Belle out of Mission Bay, one of 70 sportfishing boats that frequent the Coronados. "Those islands are everything to me."

The anglers say they are already losing fish to hungry and abundant sea lions, pollution from the Tijuana River and marine closures.

"Any restriction at the Coronados is going to hurt us," said Bob Williams, captain of the San Diego out of Mission Bay, who has been visiting the islands as a crew member or captain on sportfishing boats since 1960.

Environmentalists contend that Chevron is trying to skirt California and U.S. regulations by siting the terminal in Mexican waters.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last month that she had "serious concerns about the project's environmental impact" and that she believed "if the natural gas is meant for the California market that the project should meet California's environmental standards."

But Tomas Torres, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's San Diego office, said the project "is not on our radar screen" because it's outside the agency's jurisdiction.

Chevron denies it's trying to evade environmental or safety regulations.

"Having the terminal in Mexico is to meet Mexico's demand forecasts for natural gas," Hodgson said. "Baja California's population is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Tijuana alone is expected to overtake the San Diego population by 2012."

David MacDuffee, policy analyst for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the presence of numerous LNG terminals along the U.S. coast could have a cumulative effect on fisheries.

"When you start adding the projects together -- there could be several in the Gulf of Mexico, it looks like there may be a couple in Southern California, two in Mexico, a couple in New England -- there could be cumulative impacts that are much more significant than the individual effect," MacDuffee said.

Environmentalists say the Chevron terminal threatens marine life. They contend that light from the terminal and the tankers could harm rare seabirds that inhabit the islands.

Furthermore, they say pumping and discharges of salt water at the terminal also threaten the environment. Unlike other LNG projects proposed along the West Coast, the one at the Coronados would discharge 188 million gallons of chlorinated wastewater daily. Seawater is pumped into the terminal and used to heat the compressed gas, converting it from a liquid of minus 256 degrees into a vapor.

"It's kind of like a swimming pool pump," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "At any given time only a small portion of the water in the pool goes through the pump, but eventually all the life in the swimming pool is killed."

In addition, environmentalists say chlorine would be added to salt water entering the terminal to prevent the fouling of plumbing. They worry that the chemical could harm marine life when it's discharged to the ocean.

But Hodgson says the chlorine discharge is not significant. She says chlorine concentrations would be less than levels normally found in U.S. drinking water.

The environmental groups recently petitioned the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the environmental arm of the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying the project is inconsistent with Mexican law. The commission concluded that the allegations may have merit, and it asked Mexican federal authorities for clarification.

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