Pipeline poses minimal environmental risk for Altar Valley, report says

2013-12-02T00:00:00Z 2013-12-19T17:18:08Z Pipeline poses minimal environmental risk for Altar Valley, report saysBy Joe Ferguson Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A proposed 59-mile pipeline carrying natural gas from the Tucson area to Sasabe would not threaten endangered wildlife in Altar Valley, but does threaten the habitat of the endangered Pima pineapple cactus.

The draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Kinder Morgan Sierrita Pipeline prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concludes construction and operation of the natural gas line would cause only limited adverse environmental impacts.

Specifically, the report singles out the federally protected Pima pineapple cactus as the sole species to be harmed by the pipeline.

The federal agency identified a total of five federally listed threatened or endangered species along the course of the pipeline, including jaguars, the lesser long-nosed bat, the Chiricahua leopard frog, the masked bobwhite quail and the cactus.

The  report states that the 59-mile pipeline “may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect” the other four protected species.

The commission has asked Kinder Morgan to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service as the federal agency prepares a report on whether the pipeline would likely jeopardize the continued existence of this species.

A “no action alternative” was considered by the commission, but was eventually dismissed as no other existing pipeline could deliver the natural gas to Mexico.

Suggestions to use other energy sources were not considered, as natural gas is considered to be more environmentally friendly than other fossil fuel sources.

The report will be the subject of two public hearings scheduled for Dec. 12 and Dec. 14, allowing for public comment on the draft assessment.

Richard Wheatley, a spokesperson for Kinder Morgan, declined to comment on the draft impact statement, saying all formal responses will be made through the commission.

Ranchers in the Altar Valley are openly opposed to the proposal, arguing the 36-inch pipeline will irrevocably damage sensitive  grasslands and questioning whether the company will make the necessary investments to restore any damage to the environment caused by construction.

Mitigation measures are required as parts of the  commission’s approval, but ranchers like Melissa Owen remain skeptical.

Owen said she believes she has history on her side, pointing to other Kinder Morgan projects in Southern Arizona as examples of half-hearted attempts to replant native vegetation.

Traffic along the right-of-way for the pipeline, in terms of smuggling and use by the U.S. Border Patrol, worries ranchers and environmentalists, with doubts over whether the area can ever be restored if the pipeline is built.

Others opposed to the pipeline include Pima County, which estimates the pipeline could cost taxpayers $11.2 million in its first year of operation.

The multimillion dollar figure includes costs for increased patrols by the Sheriff’s Department, costs to the medical examiner due to increased migrant deaths of those using the pipeline road, erosion control for an estimated 210 washes and buying thousands of acres to help preserve the threatened  cactus.

The Tohono O’odham Nation objects to the pipeline, believing it could harm up to 60 “sacred and significant” cultural resource sites, including Baboquivari Peak, village sites, trash mounds and quarries.

State Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, has written a letter of support for the project, arguing the pipeline will create jobs in Pima County and provide clean energy to the Mexican economy.

“I view this project as a winner on multiple levels — economically and environmentally. Please help this project move forward rapidly by accelerating its approval by your agency,” he wrote in a filing to the commission.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@azstarnet.com or 573-4346. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFerguson

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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