Crude oil pipeline planned, would pass through three Game and Fish wildlife management areas 

Diamond's cut through WMAs has Game and Fish, other agencies, scrambling.

A crude oil refiner and a pipeline company are contemplating running an east-west gas line through Arkansas's mid-section, connecting Cushing, Okla., on the west and Memphis on the east. A route under consideration would take the pipeline through three Game and Fish wildlife management areas, and Game and Fish is finding out that its options to keep the crude oil pipeline out of the Steve Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA, the Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA and the Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA are limited. The Black Swamp is 5,590 acres along the Cache River, its bottomlands filled with giant cypress trees and water tupelos and rich with bird and animal life.

A brochure provided to conservation agencies describes the Valero and the Plains All American Pipeline Co.'s Diamond Pipeline Project as an $800 million initiative that will build 424 miles of 20-inch pipeline to Valero's refinery in Memphis. The pipeline is "expected" to transport oil produced from the Permian Basin, Bakken Shale and Mid-continent oil regions.

A pipeline company spokesman declined to comment, saying the project was "still being evaluated." Valero referred questions to the pipeline company.

The brochure for the pipeline says the companies will finalize engineering plans and permits and right-of-way acquisition this year and begin construction in 2015 with a goal to be in service by 2016.

Arkansas has no law governing oil pipeline siting, though state agencies have jurisdiction over projects where they cross navigable waterways (the state Public Service Commission) and do require stormwater construction, hydrostatic testing and stream crossing permits (the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality). The federal government leaves authority over pipeline routing to the states (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates only natural gas line siting, and the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates pipelines once constructed).

That leaves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which requires permits for work in all waterways, navigable or not, as the best conduit for Game and Fish to try to limit intrusion on state-owned sensitive natural areas and prevent habitat fragmentation.

Game and Fish Deputy Director Ricky Chastain said his agency is working with partners, including the state Health Department, the Arkansas Department of Natural Heritage (which has easements on some Game and Fish lands), and the state Natural Resources Commission — "everybody that has a stake" in protecting health of both people and natural areas — to ask the Corps to impose individual permit requirements rather than a nationwide permit that would cover the entire pipeline. Individual permits require a formal review process, requiring public comment and triggering public notice to all concerned agencies. That would "provide an avenue for additional review," Chastain said. The WMAs lie in the Corps' Memphis district. The pipeline passes through the Tulsa and Little Rock districts as well.

Cynthia Blansett, environmental protection specialist for the Little Rock district of the Corps, said Valero and Plains All American had a "pre-application" meeting with the Little Rock district and the Tulsa and Memphis districts last fall. They have submitted a proposed route to the Corps and said they hope to have an application in by late spring or early summer.

Blansett said the application will include environmental impact information. The Corps will use that information to determine whether the applicant will fall under nationwide permit guidelines for least impact.

Chastain said the agency did not know about the pipeline until its real estate section sent higher ups a notice that the Diamond Project partners had asked permission to survey Game and Fish property. "So we threw up some red flags," Chastain said, to get more information before allowing the surveying.

The pipeline company provided draft routes ("not very good in detail," Chastain said) to Jennifer Sheehan, the agency's federal regulatory liaison. "We are concerned that this thing is headed down a path that we will not have a lot of input" in, Chastain said.

The Natural Heritage Commission has an easement on the Black Swamp of 937 acres called the Cache River Natural Area. As a remnant of what east Arkansas was like in its natural state, the land is protected in perpetuity by both Heritage and Game and Fish. "We would like to see this project at least get a little more public review. Normally we would weigh in through some sort of federal nexus, and to our knowledge that formal review has not occurred," said Heritage Director Chris Colclasure.

Though Game and Fish has allowed fracking on some of its lands, Chastain said the lease agreement includes "all sorts of extraordinary protection measures. ... It's not your standard back 40 lease, in our opinion what they all should look like." He said he did not think the oil company would be happy to meet such conditions.

An initial plan would have taken the plan through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, but the agency, which is part of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, could, and did, say no to the plan. That moved the route to the south, and through the state wildlife management areas.

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