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2004-05-03 15:34:36

Pipeline To The Bahamas Spells Disaster

Sometime in the near future, two companies will begin trenching heavy pipelines across the ocean bottom from the Bahamas to South Florida.

Not only will the construction scar the reefs and disperse marine life, the pipes will be used to carry millions of cubic feet of natural gas, which ignites rather spectacularly when exposed to oxygen and a spark.

Nonetheless, both projects have won hearty approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, an agency that obviously needs to change its name. In endorsing the Bahamas-to-Florida pipelines, the DEP conceded that the drilling might cause "potential damage to the coral reefs and other important marine resources." Yet those concerns were outweighed by the rosy conclusion that the pipelines "will help satisfy the growing demand for natural gas in Florida." How these goofball schemes got the go-ahead so swiftly, and with minimal public input, would seem a mystery. But not really. The idea was to transport the gas in liquid form from Africa and other places to the Bahamas.

There it would be converted to vaporized fuel and piped to Florida, for distribution along the Eastern seaboard. One of the plans was first hatched by those fine corporate citizens at Enron, and has since been taken over by an outfit called Tractebel. It calls for 90 miles of underwater pipe running from a gas plant on Grand Bahama all the way to Port Everglades. The second pipeline would cross 54 miles from Ocean Cay, near Bimini, to Dania Beach. The company that's building it is a subsidiary of AES Corp., whose chairman is Richard Darman, a heavy Republican playmaker who was budget director when the first George Bush was president. Given the current George Bush's chummy relationship with the gas and oil industry, it's no surprise that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission breezily approved both Florida pipelines.

Permanent damage to reefs Yet for one fleeting moment it appeared that the president's own brother might throw a wrench in the works. In mid-March, Gov. Jeb Bush delayed a cabinet vote on the pipelines, saying he was concerned about the environmental impact as well as dangers to humans. Bush heard a presentation by Raymond McAllister, professor emeritus of ocean engineering at Florida Atlantic University. McAllister had stated that the pipelines could not be built without permanently damaging the reefs, and that leaks could create a potentially lethal hazard for boaters and beachgoers. Evidently the governor's worries evaporated after what pipeline officials characterized as a period of "education." Whatever malarkey they told Bush in private, he apparently bought it. Two weeks ago, the cabinet approved both Bahamas pipelines with little debate. A third pipeline, to be operated by a unit of Florida Power & Light, will soon be up for a vote. Each company insists that its project will be safe, secure and kind to the deep blue sea. AES and Tractebel say they'll clear a path for the lines by drilling horizontally beneath the reefs, then fitting the pipes through the rock. To make things even more interesting, the segments must be laid through the Gulf Stream, against a current of three to four knots. No problem, the companies say. Don't you fret about a thing.


They're going to chew through 90 miles of ocean bottom and leave it just the way God made it. Who are they kidding? Humongous underwater drill Here's a well-known fact about coral reefs: Silt and sediment can kill them deader than a doornail. Nothing stirs up sediment like a humongous underwater drill, yet we're supposed to believe that all that suspended debris -- millions of tons -- will be transported harmlessly away from the reefs. No way. The last bureaucratic hurdle for the pipeline builders is the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that probably knows which questions to ask. Whether it is immune from the clout of Darman and the others is doubtful, however. Under their agreement with the state, the pipeline companies can't sell or transfer the easement rights if the projects go bust. They will also be liable for up to $1.5 million for any damage done to the marine habitat. Unfortunately, because of the extreme distances and depths of the pipe, the damage is likely to be irreparable at any price. Dead coral tends to stay dead, and the sea life that depends on it never returns. Florida is home to the last of the continent's living reefs, a fact we boastfully trumpet to lure tourists. It's startling that Gov. Bush and the cabinet would so casually put this already-imperiled treasure at risk, for so little gain to the public. It's even more disturbing that, with the future of our shores and ocean waters at stake, Bush would dismiss the concerns of scientists and trust the word of energy hustlers. They might call it an ''education,'' but it smells like a sellout.

Carl Hiaasen/In My Opinion 

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