Oil Reserve Project Prompts Serious Environmental Concerns

South Mississippi is poised to become a major part of the country's Strategic Oil Reserve. That's the emergency oil supply that the United States turns to when oil flow is interrupted or there's some other emergency.

The plan that impacts our area involves using a salt dome in Richton, Mississippi, to store extra barrels of oil: up to 165,000,000 barrels.

The story also involves the Pascagoula River. The strategic oil project would use water from the river to remove salt from the dome in Richton, making room for the oil.

How much river water? Try 50,000,000 gallons a day, for five years.

"Oh, I'd say that's pretty serious. I mean we're all aware that they currently take 15 million gallons or so a day from the Cumbest Bluff area to feed the industrial area down here in Pascagoula. And at low flow, that's probably five or six percent maybe. We're talking about four times that kind of volume," said biologist Mark Lasalle, who runs the river's Audubon Center in Moss Point.

He worries about saltwater intrusion on the Pascagoula. As a coastal river, the Pascagoula ebbs and flows with gulf waters. Removing so much fresh water would allow the so-called "salt wedge to move farther north.

"That's the major concern with withdrawal. You're taking even more water out of the river at low flow, which might allow the salt wedge to perpetuate further up the river. And we just don't know what impacts that has," he explained.

Once the river water is used to mine the salt dome, that super salty brine solution will be piped from Richton and discharged in the Gulf of Mexico, near Horn Island Pass.

Along with the impact on the Pascagoula River system, of equal concern is the impact on the Gulf of Mexico. As planned, the project would dump millions of gallons a day of salty solution into the Gulf waters.

Discharging brine might adversely affect the growth of marine life. It could destroy plankton, the microscopic "nutrients of the sea" and impact the migration of marine life.

"And in Mississippi, probably 98 percent of our seafood species are estuarine dependent, meaning they have to go offshore as early larvae," said Dr. Harriet Perry, a marine biologist with the Gulf Coast Research Lab.

"Our barrier island passes and those access channels are really conduits to move animals in and out of the sound. And it's projected the brine plume will actually extend into the ship channel," she said.

It seems the project has flown "under the radar" somewhat, at least as it concerns the environmental impact.

A spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources told WLOX News, "our agency knows very little about it."

The DMR is requesting information and answers from the federal Department of Energy, which oversees the plans.

A part of the plan also involves using the now vacant Navy facilities on Singing River Island in Pascagoula. That's where the project would build dock facilities and storage tanks to pump oil to and from the salt dome storage space in Richton.