Dredging the Carquinez to Accommodate Oil 

The Army Corps is deepening shipping channels to allow tankers access. The agency says it will clear the air. Environmentalists don't agree.

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Community groups also worry about harm the project could cause to the local marine environment. Even with no increase in the volume of oil shipped, the Army Corps predicts an increase in the use of larger ships. Environmentalists say larger ships go faster, which increases noise in the underwater environment as well as the likelihood of "ship strikes" on marine mammals. An increase in shipping would amplify those problems.

Environmental groups also charge that the Environmental Impact Statement underestimates the harm that would be caused by the dredging itself — both from the initial channel project and the subsequent annual maintenance that will be required. An earlier report from the Army Corps acknowledged that current ship traffic and maintenance dredging already stress the endangered Delta smelt. Noise associated with the dredging would also stress sturgeon, salmon and trout, and marine mammals.

The stirred-up sediment mixes with the water, changing its temperature and chemical makeup in ways that harm fish populations. The Army Corps describes plans to minimize these impacts, including the use of less-damaging dredging equipment and limiting dredging to times of the year when it would cause the least harm to wildlife. The environmental groups say these assurances are not adequate because dredging at the planned times could still harm smelt and salmon, and because the Army Corps says it will use these methods when "practicable" — which environmentalists see as a significant loophole.

And they warn that dredging could stir up heavy metals and other toxic pollutants now settled in the floor of the channel. Townsley of the Army Corps of Engineers responded that the Corps does some routine dredging every year. "The process includes rigorous sediment testing," he said, and "it has not identified challenges with the cleanliness of the dredged material in the channel." The environmentalists say they should also test the water before approving the project.

Environmentalists also raise questions about the recent decision to limit the dredging project to a 13-mile stretch mostly west of Martinez, rather than continuing it to the port of Stockton, as originally envisioned. They suspect that the project stops where it does because going farther inland would worsen an already serious environmental problem: increasing the concentration of salt in the Delta. They say the corps is illegally "piecemealing" the project — doing an environmental study of just one part so as not to acknowledge the harm the full project would cause.

Sea-level rise and diversion of water to Central Valley agriculture are already making Delta water saltier. Large amounts of fresh water are being pumped in to keep the salt level down, but if it continues to increase, it will threaten agriculture and every other aspect of the Delta ecosystem. The Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that this is a serious issue for the dredging project. It will be a factor in the decision about whether to deepen the shipping channel to 37 feet or 38 feet. Deeper dredging would save the oil industry more money but allow more salt upstream.

The Environmental Impact Statement says planners limited the project to the western section because that's where it's currently needed. Dredging the first 13-mile stretch is "more appropriate for the immediate problems facing existing vessels." The dredging is planned to go just past the eastern-most refinery in Martinez.

Townsley of the Army Corps said the "rescoping was based on a number of factors, not just environmental." A large part of the motivation for the project, he said, is the "national economic interest — why taxpayers in Kansas would find some value in it." He said planners evaluated whether the stretch farther east has "enough maritime commerce to justify" the expense. He said it was "close to being a positive" but was rejected because of "the complexity of the study — other factors."

The Port of Stockton is the official "nonfederal sponsor" of the project because the original plan was to deepen the channel all the way to Stockton. Spokesperson Jeff Wingfield said the port hopes the eastern phase will be completed next. That raises another fear in the environmental community. Stockton doesn't ship petroleum, but it does export coal — and it can't get big ships fully loaded with coal down the Carquinez Strait. Environmental and community groups fighting coal exports in Richmond — and potential coal exports in Oakland — fear shipments of coal will increase if shipping channels are deepened to Stockton.

Finally, project opponents charge that the Army Corps of Engineers has not consulted enough with the community in developing the project. They say an initial community hearing in June was poorly publicized. They also point out that Corps staff members who wrote the Environmental Impact Statement are based in Florida. They say work on the project should be done by local people who know the area and can consult with the community.

Townsley responded that developing the project was "a team effort" in which "local people were well represented." It's Corps policy to "get expertise wherever we can," he said, "but we make sure we have people who understand the local conditions."

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