Export terminals fuel environmental concerns

Aplomado falcon. (Courtesy Chris Perez, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge)

Aplomado falcon. (Courtesy Chris Perez, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge)

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

Concerns have begun to mount about the effects several proposed Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) export terminals could have on both endangered species and environmentally sensitive land in the Laguna Madre region.

The construction of the three projects – Annova LNG, Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG – is being proposed on Port of Brownsville land zoned for industrial use along the Brownsville Ship Channel. That land, however, lies adjacent to the Bahia Grande – the largest wetlands restoration project in the country – which is, in turn, part of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR).

The refuge — and the lands surrounding it — serves as critical habitat for nine federally endangered species and numerous state endangered and rare species, including the ocelot and the aplomado falcon. Furthermore, the habitat itself, which consists of salt prairies and lomas, or low ridges made of sand and vegetation, is unique to South Texas. As such, local officials and conservationists alike have begun to express concerns about the impact any development could have on the region.

All three companies are in the pre-filing process seeking the recommendation of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The process takes approximately two years and requires each company to produce numerous studies, called resource reports, which analyze the potential impacts of their facilities on such variables as economic, aesthetic and environmental concerns. The process also includes opportunities for the public to submit opinions to FERC.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) submitted one such statement outlining 20 concerns they have about the facilities. Chief among them were, “Potential cumulative and secondary impacts to all habitats,” and “potential impacts to all federal and state-listed rare, threatened, and endangered species and their habitats within a five-mile vicinity of the project.”

The PRESS reached out to TPWD for elaboration on those concerns, but was referred to the statement. However, Robert Jess, senior manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (LRGVNWR), which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) offered some insight into the uniqueness of the region.

Jess explained that the USFWS works in conjunction with FERC during the pre-filing process as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to provide opinions on environmental impacts and mitigation proposals. “What we essentially do is we go through and we provide our comments,” Jess said. “It weighs the pros and cons of potential impacts,” he said of the NEPA process.

One of the proposed projects lies on land that is currently known as the Loma Preserve, Jess said. The preserve has proven vitally important in the conservation efforts of the ocelot. “That is our biggest concern because it is the only known corridor between Mexico and the U.S. for the U.S. population of ocelots,” Jess said.

“We’ve had research over the years that ocelots use that loma. Telemetry data suggests that the ocelot swim the channel in that area,” said LRGVNWR manager Bryan Winton.

Without a viable corridor, the American population of ocelots could be cut off from Mexican and Central American populations. Approximately 50 – 80 animals currently exist on this side of the border, but lack of access to a broader population could create a genetic bottleneck that would eventually lead to the extinction of the ocelot in the U.S.

Up until August 2014, the land was part of a conservation easement between the Brownsville Navigation District (BND) and the USFWS. Conservation easements allow private landowners to enter into agreements with USFWS or third party conservation groups to restrict the development and use of a tract of land in order to aid wildlife conservation efforts. According to an agreement dated Aug. 9, 1983, the Loma Preserve was land the BND had set aside for such a purpose as part of a mitigation agreement for another development project.

The agreement states that USFWS would, “Have and to hold said premise … for a term of forty (40) years or the life of the Brownsville Navigation District project, whichever is longer…”

The Laguna Madre’s lomas and salt prairies are an extremely rare ecological feature that exists almost nowhere else in the world, and nowhere else in the United States. “These lomas take many, many hundreds of years to be developed and that vegetation out there, they represent hundreds, if not thousands, of years of growth over time,” Jess said. They are comprised of shallow sandy ridges covered thickly by vegetation. “It’s a mature forest, if you will, South Texas style,” Jess said.

The region is also home to one of the last stretches of Tamaulipan thorn scrub. “(There’s) only 5 percent of that left in the state of Texas, and there’s less than 1 percent of the lomas left in the state of Texas,” he said.

Aside from ocelots, eight other federally endangered species depend on the unique environment of the Laguna Atascosa NWR and the lands surrounding it, including the aplomado falcon. The bird of prey was driven to the verge of extinction in the late 1800s thanks to over harvesting of their eggs and skins said LRGNWR wildlife biologist Chris Perez.

They were reintroduced to the area beginning in 1993, he said. “Now we have… about 16-20 nesting pairs per year consistently and the population is stable to increasing,” he said.

The USFWS has had several meetings with representatives from each of the three LNG projects, Jess said. It is a process he said is still ongoing. “(There’s) lots of back and forth between the companies, FERC and USFWS to alter and adapt plans,” he said, explaining the care with which USFWS examines the projects. It will be at least two years before FERC finishes examining the date provided from the companies, USFWS and a host of other agencies before deciding on their recommendations.

1983 Brownsville Navigation District/Port of Brownsville Loma Preserve Lease – Conservation Easement agreement (Microsoft Word attachment download)

Return to Story

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department – Letter of Concern (PDF)

This post has been updated.

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