Proposed Oregon natural gas pipeline raises environmental concerns

PETER ZUCKERMAN
The Oregonian Staff

The latest maps of a natural gas line proposed for Oregon show a freeway-wide clear-cut slicing through 73 miles of public forest and the pressurized pipeline crossing about 50 rivers and named streams.

At peak construction, Palomar Gas Transmission plans to employ up to 1,000 workers to clear brush and trees along a 120-foot-wide path, level terrain and bury the pipe in a trench 7 feet deep, according to the latest draft of a report filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Until now, environmental opposition to the Palomar project and a similar, competing proposal centered on concerns about possible pollution or spills from tankers crossing the Columbia River bar and transferring huge quantities of fuel at an estuary upstream from Astoria. New details about Palomar's proposed route expand the debate to include communities throughout northwest Oregon.

In all, the pipeline would extend 210 miles, feeding into a natural gas network east of the Cascades. Work crews would cut through public and private land using backhoes, rock cutters, tractor-mounted mechanical rippers and blasting tools. Palomar officials say they would minimize environmental damage while providing Oregonians with jobs and a reliable source of energy.

Critics say the project would degrade wildlife and fish habitat, destabilize soil, kill endangered species, spread invasive weeds, destroy patches of old-growth trees and open public forest to all-terrain vehicles.

More energy sources:

At low temperatures, natural gas liquefies.

Palomar would ship supercooled liquid natural gas imported on tankers from Russia, Indonesia, Australia and the Middle East to a terminal near Wauna, on the Columbia River. The fuel, warmed to a gas state, would flow through a high-pressure line, providing enough energy to supply thousands of West Coast homes and businesses.

Proponents say the Pacific Northwest must develop more energy sources and that natural gas is cleaner than coal. They estimate the project would pump $75 million into local economies each year and provide $8 million in annual taxes.

Regardless of whether the terminal is approved and constructed, Northwest Natural Gas Co., Oregon's leading natural gas provider, proposes building the eastern section of Palomar to ship more fuel between central Oregon and the Willamette Valley.

Palomar officials acknowledge that pipeline construction would disturb land and water. But, as a company brochure puts it, "Palomar is committed to environmental protection throughout the course of construction and on into the operation and maintenance of the pipeline."

Hydrologists, geotechs, biologists, geologists, archaeologists and other experts are helping Palomar find the best path for the line, officials said.

Crossing rivers:

No matter what route is chosen across western Oregon, the Palomar pipeline must cross several rivers with important salmon habitat, including the Willamette, Clackamas, Molalla, Pudding and Deschutes.

In all, construction would require the use of 3,124 acres -- an area about the size of Milwaukie -- plus a yet-to-be-determined amount of temporary workspace, according to the project description Palomar submitted to the regulatory commission. Once operating, the pipe would require the use of much less land -- about 1,300 acres.

Although construction crews would use a 120-foot-wide path in most areas, the pathway would narrow to 75 feet in wetlands. In steep terrain or at difficult crossings, workers would use additional terrain. Until they determine the final route, Palomar officials say they won't know how many water crossings the pipeline would require or whether it would go above or below specific rivers and streams.

An analysis of Geographic Information System data conducted by Erik Fernandez, wilderness coordinator for Oregon Wild, which advocates for the protection of Oregon's wilderness, found the proposed pipeline would cross 292 water bodies, many of them too small to have names.

An examination of less detailed maps by The Oregonian found the pipeline would cross about 50 named rivers, streams and creeks.

Environmental activists and some public officials said the crossings would dirty the water, spoil spawning habitats and sicken and kill threatened fish species.

In a letter to Gov. Ted Kulongoski and other public officials, the Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District said district residents have expressed "shock and disbelief" at the potential degradation of public property. "Recent landslides in Columbia County have heightened public awareness to the linkage between clear-cutting and landslides," district manager Rick Gruen wrote.

Many environmentalists are alarmed, saying the pipeline amounts to a giveaway to pollution-intensive corporations.

"It's taking public assets and turning them into private profits," said Bill Barton, Native Forest Council field operations director. "We should stop this. If citizens don't wake up, our resources will be gone."

Instead of hooking Oregonians on natural gas, the state should promote renewable sources of energy, he and others said.

This month, Forest Grove became the first Oregon city to formally oppose the project, finding that it would jeopardize the ecological balance of the Columbia River, the natural resources along the pipeline route and the water supply of Forest Grove.

"Even if they do everything they can to protect the environment, this project will still have an adverse impact," said Brenna Bell, staff attorney for Willamette Riverkeeper. "That raises the question: Do we need this project?"

Mitigating damage:

Palomar officials say the project's economic benefits more than outweigh environmental costs.

Once they determine the pipeline's path, company officials say they will propose specific measures to minimize damage. Workers would probably replace topsoil, recreate the contours of the land, replant native tree seeds or seedlings, install erosion-control devices and possibly buy and donate land to offset any losses.

After construction, the forest could grow back in most places, except for a 23-foot path, according to Palomar project manager Henry Morse.

"The permanent, untimbered area is so narrow the canopy can almost completely cover it," he said.

Peter Zuckerman: 503-294-5919; peterzuckerman@news.oregonian.com