Passing Gas

Planned pipelines threaten fragile coral formations

Ray McAllister has scuba-dived along the Broward County shoreline since 1964, when he helped establish Florida Atlantic University's ocean engineering bachelor's degree program. The sea in his backyard served as a practical classroom. His nickname, "Old Crusty," reflects both his time beneath the waves and his sometimes gruff and always blunt personality. His decades of experience include laying and repairing underwater fiber-optic cable and pipeline. So when McAllister has something to say about the reefs in this part of the world, it's wise to listen.

In March, McAllister stood before Jeb Bush and the cabinet in Tallahassee and described the abysmal condition of the ancient reef formation that runs along the Broward shoreline. "The reef is on its last legs," McAllister said the other day, recapping his testimony. "It's suffered from the insults of nature. Coral are subjected to damage from anchors. You have nutrients flowing out from the inlets that promote algae growth. You've got ships going aground on them. Cable laying. Fishermen's lines cutting through reef sponges. Black garbage bags thrown out of boats that cover up the coral." He concludes: "Now we're talking about another insult?"

The professor's disdain is over the cabinet's approval on April 13 of two unprecedented pipeline projects that would run beneath Broward's reefs. Although Bush initially expressed skepticism about assertions that damage to the coral could be mitigated, he made an abrupt about-face earlier this month. The companies need the cabinet's permission to run the channels on Florida's shores and land.

Keep 'em clean, says "Old Crusty."
Colby Katz
Keep 'em clean, says "Old Crusty."

The Tractebel Calypso Pipeline Co. and AES Corp. contend the two natural gas pipelines from the Bahamas to the Port Everglades area are crucial for South Florida's growing population -- although no customers have as yet committed to buying the gas. The job calls for boring mile-long holes beneath the reefs just off Fort Lauderdale. Both pipelines have already received environmental approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is the agency in charge of preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC concluded that the projects could be done without harming the reefs. The only approval needed now is from the Army Corps of Engineers and Bahamas officials.

McAllister scorns the projects as slapdash. "The whole thing smacks of doing it the easiest way possible and the cheapest way possible in the hope that we won't destroy anything or have an accident," he says.

McAllister might be the most cantankerous voice against the pipelines, but he's certainly not alone in his criticism.

"With both the federal and state Bush administrations having this connection to big oil and energy, it's just rubberstamp, rubberstamp," says Brian Scherf, with the Florida Biodiversity Project. "They never looked at the cumulative impact on the coral, what's happening to the reef system here. They could have sited this in Palm Beach County and avoided the reefs. But instead, they want to go right through the reef, tunnel underneath."

Indeed, as late as last September, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was highly critical of the quality of the data FERC used in evaluating the effects of the project. "In many cases, the data and information provided in the [impact statement] is out of date, incorrect, insufficient to support assertion of consistency or, in the case of cumulative impact analysis, nonexistent," the DEP wrote to the energy commission. DEP's reversal came with little fanfare. The DEP did not respond to a New Times request for an interview.

"I am not against building gas pipelines," McAllister declares, "but I am against them doing it as casually as they are. I would say that government agencies -- except in matters of no significance -- exist to support big business, not to defend the people of the state of Florida against stupidity. We've had some awfully stupid decisions being made."

McAllister studied marine geology at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and received his doctorate in geological oceanography from Texas A&M. He doesn't hesitate to bite the hand that feeds him. In 1993, after he was handed an award as FAU's top teaching professor, he seized the moment to blast the school for basing promotions more on a faculty member's ability to raise funds than to teach. He took a shot at legislators and administrators for spending money for campus beautification instead of expanding classes.

This is not a man who cowers from federal agencies or the governor of Florida.

He assails regulators for ignoring the fact that this type of pipeline project has never been attempted in waters of this depth with this much current. Similar pipelines have been laid in the Gulf Coast, but the currents there are predictable. McAllister has measured currents on this side of Florida. "I've had them as high as seven knots with a spurt of ten knots," he says. "And that's in 1,500 feet of water off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. You can't expect a low-current time of year." At the very least, he contends, the companies should lay the deep-water pipe before drilling beneath the coral. "All we're saying is, do the difficult parts before you've screwed up both sides with the shallow-water stuff," he says.

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