Bradwood Landing: What's Wrong With LNG?
As you likely know, Northern Star Natural Gas is planning to build a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on the banks of the Columbia river, at Bradwood Landing. They have launched a relentless PR campaign to convince us all that this is a good thing for the region. "Jobs." "Growth." "Clean." These are some of the words they are using right now, on every billboard, on every radio station, on television commercials, and even, apparently, at union picnics ( http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2008/09/379083.shtml). But it's worth looking into their claims a little closer. Indeed, it's worth taking the time to really understand what is at stake.
There are many, many reasons why local residents have risen up in opposition to the siting of an LNG plant on the Columbia. Among the reasons for this opposition: The facility would disturb sensitive wetlands and salmon habitat; it would mean huge pipelines cutting great and potentially dangerous swaths through Cascadia; accidents in the storage or transportation of LNG could have devastating environmental consequences; and local citizens were given little or no input into this important decision which could impact our health, safety, and quality of life in this region. Others have spoken eloquently about this issue on this site, and, as I am no expert on the finer details of the proposal, I encourage you to seek those articles out. I want to write about this from a more personal perspective. I traveled down the Columbia this weekend with two colleagues and three cameras to the Bradwood site, to get a better understanding of what is at stake. I want to share this perspective with you. Because there is every reason to be very, very concerned.
Even in the PR material on Northern Star's own website, the facility looks ominous. ( http://www.bradwoodlanding.com/) Although they have chosen the color green for their site, along with a horribly inappropriate, green-washed logo that looks like a leaf coalescing from a drop of blue water, this project is anything but environmentally sound. Prominently displayed in the middle of the site, there is an artist's rendition of what they imagine the finished plant will look like, all colored in clean, neat blues and greens, where a huge stretch of shoreline is reduced to clipped lawn, roads, and storage towers lingering beneath a smooth, blue sky. On the mirror-still water of the Columbia, a huge ship sits, parked next to the terminal. The trees and forest and wetlands recede from this scene like oil from water. Even here, this scene is chilling. It is meant to appear reassuringly bucolic, but instead it comes off as sterile, devoid of life. It is interesting to me that the people who designed that website were unable to recognize how lifeless it appears, and how ominous that seems. But of course, the reality will be much worse even than that portrait. It will not be clean. It will not be green. And the waters of the Columbia will not be still and clear there. And they know this. Factories and industrial plants along the river are never clean and green. Never.
I spend a lot of time on this river, and it's painful to see the places where toxins are still spewing into the water, where the most important river in the region is used as a sewer for various commercial enterprises, and where short-sighted people failed to grasp the significance of their actions until it was too late. In spite of everything that has been done to the Columbia, the salmon runs and the birds of prey and the native species are still struggling for life here. In spite of everything, the ghosts of the past still cling to the steep slopes above the river. In the early morning mist, one can still see ospreys hunting above the waves, can still see vultures recycling the energy of life through the ecosystem, and can still imagine what it must have been like here before Lewis and Clark came, when trees so large ten men could not wrap their arms around them covered the earth from the steep mountaintops all the way down to the shore. There is still something left here worth saving. And so, when some giant and greedy corporation comes chugging in here with yet another plot to plant yet another belching factory on the shores, to take what little is left, I am dubious. I am skeptical of their promises of "jobs" and "growth" and "cleanliness," not to mention "slight environmental impacts." I have already seen how different reality looks than the neat, clean, "green," artists' renditions they always come armed with.
So when I traveled down to the Bradwood site this weekend, I was not naive about it. I already feared what another project like this one might mean for our ecosystem, for the tributary of life on which our entire region depends. But I wanted to know, first-hand and specifically, what might be at stake. What is there now, and what might become of it? What kind of consequences might this have? What are they really proposing to take away?
I went first to the Bradwood site itself, and then to the small rivers and streams feeding into the Columbia just on either side of the site. I figured, the entire river system has been put at risk by industrial development, but one can often get the best picture of just what is at stake by exploring the areas just upstream and just downstream from any new development. These are the areas most sensitive to possible impact, the areas that will be devastated first when anything goes wrong (or, in this case, when things go according to plan). Within a few miles of Bradwood Landing to the east is Plympton Creek, and to the west is Gnat Creek. I hiked along each of these places, and explored the wetlands between them, along the Columbia, encompassing the Bradwood site. What I found there is a beautiful, delicately balanced ecosystem that deserves to be preserved. I cannot imagine how anyone could conclude, as both Northern Star and the federal government have apparently done, that this area is an appropriate place for industrial development.
In hiking down the long, narrow, crumbling road from Highway 30 to the Bradwood site, I found tiny, nameless rivulets crowded with baby salmon and other fish the size of my little finger. The little fish hovered in clear, shallow water beneath tall, bending grasses that populated the swamps and wetlands just inside the nameless little estuaries running into the Columbia there. Farther in, they darted through the cool shadows at the bottom of deep grottoes lined with ferns and nestled beneath thick stands of cedar, fir, and hawthorn trees. I saw herons wading majestically in the grassy swamps, and cormorants sunning themselves along the shore. There was an osprey clinging to the bleached bones of a long-dead maple tree in the middle of a swampy grassland. Surprisingly, I saw two signs, half-covered with vegetation, reading, "Native Plant Site for Watershed and Wildlife Habitat Restoration," apparently placed there by Clatsop County Public Works. These signs were a stone's throw from the site of the proposed terminal. If Northern Star gets its way, the native plants will be trampled beneath bulldozers, and this will all become clipped, manicured, sterile lawn at best, and something much more sinister at worst. Either way, it will be destroyed, unless Northern Star is stopped in its tracks.
A few miles upstream from Bradwood Landing, at Plympton Creek, I found a sheltered little world, teeming with creation. I came at a special time in the ancient ritual of life here. I found the shallow creek littered with the corpses of salmon whose life cycles had come full circle here. At first, I had found the sight alarming, until I realized that the fall Chinook run is in full swing now, and this is the way the nutrients of the life force have been delivered up into the forests along the Columbia since time immemorial. The shores vibrated with birds, insects, small carnivores, and omnivores of all sorts who had been drawn to the bittersweet annual feast, where life and death intertwine to create new life. As I crept silently through the woods along the shore, I watched huge vultures lifting gingerly up from the shadowed stream bed and disappearing into the thick branches above, leaving the exposed bones and entrails of sacrificial salmon spread out on the dark rocks along the stream. It was a sobering and awe-inspiring ritual to behold.
Everything here, from the verdant leaves and branches stretching out of the earth, to the lazy insects hovering in the air, to the larger mammals and birds shyly watching from the shadows, everything here is nourished through this annual ceremony of giving. There was a pungent sense of renewal and celebration all around me here -- the sweet perfume of vegetation, punctuated with the strong odor of rotting salmon breaking back down into the unexpurgated stuff of life, the music of water running over rocks, the deep and somber poetry of carrion eating birds wafting through the trees. Even the bizarre little cats prowling along the shores for whatever was left seemed to be aware of the enormity of what we were witnessing here, this crashing together of great waves of death and life. This is an important and essential place in the universe. This place thrums with epic myth, unfurling deep and hidden secrets about the meaning of life.
If we do nothing, all of this could be taken from the earth by people whose idea of beauty appears to consist of clipped, manicured, green lawns and rolling cement; by people who have never imagined such a world as this one; by people whose ears are deaf to, and whose hearts have never been stirred by, the chaotic, messy, pulsing drumbeat of creation.
Before I reluctantly left here, I broke out of the woods near the place where Plympton creek meets the river. Here, I saw another sign. This one read, in part, "Plympton Creek is critical habitat for salmon species listed as threatened under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Endangered Species Act, including Chinook, Coho, Chum, and Sockeye Salmon, as well as Steelhead. Adults and juveniles of these species and their habitat are to be protected so that they can successfully migrate, spawn, and rear so it will contribute to their recovery." The sign went on to admonish people catching the ferry nearby to ensure that their vehicles are not leaking any oil or fluids, which could damage the habitat. Not far from the sign, I saw a home-made sign reading, "NO LNG."
As I popped out of the woods and approached the riverbank, I saw a fellow IMC reporter who had accompanied me out here, and who had gone off to find people to interview while I communed with carnivores in the stream. He was standing on the rocks near the river, talking to a fisherman whose line stretched out over the bank and disappeared into the green water. As I approached them, the man was laughing, and my friend was smiling sadly at him. I only caught the very end of the conversation. "What was that about?" I asked, as we wandered away. "Well," Said my friend. "I had asked him what he thought of the LNG plant."
"Well, he said he thought it would be cool. And when I asked him why, he said because he had heard that if a tanker breaks open out there, it could freeze a swath of river 5 miles long, solid. He said he thought that would be pretty cool."
From there, we headed downstream, to a tiny creek a few miles to the ocean side of the Bradwood site. We wound up at Gnat creek. Here, we found a clear stream shrouded beneath great, mossy trees. There were no salmon carcasses here, but an abundant feast lined the shores just the same. Sweet perfume drifted up from the forest floor, where salal berries were bursting with purple juices. Huckleberries grew out of fallen logs, and fat, ripe blueberries dangled from thickets on the edges of the woods. Salmon berry bushes rose up from the ground, but they had delivered up their fruits earlier in the summer, and their branches were bare now. Oxalis peered from the leaf litter beneath graceful ferns, and quiet little wildflowers hovered against the rocks and roots, dripping nectar to entice the swarming, buzzing, rustling little insects all around us. We came to a fish hatchery, where we met a man who used to lay natural gas pipe for a living, and now he manages the hatchery. A nice guy, he expressed some distrust of both sides of the LNG debate. Having spent much of his life shilling for the gas industry, he was reluctant to criticize the project. But possessing a love of the land here, he was reluctant to support it either. And so, he was caught in the throes of inertia on the matter, reluctantly siding with the oppressor (as those who are neutral always do). He said he wasn't sure what to think about all that, nor did he seem to comprehend the damage that hatchery fish are doing to the Columbia river habitat. However, he seemed to love the land, and he had worked for ten years to create a nature trail above the hatchery, where one can walk through the forest and learn about the native and non-native flora from little plaques lovingly placed beneath trees and shrubs. We hiked the trail, and it really was a work of art. Following the contours along the creek, it wound its way to a place where the water slid across a bed of lava, and tumbled in sheets over a photogenic little waterfall. I meant to go back and tell the man how much I appreciated this work, but he was gone when we got back to the hatchery. Anyway, he illustrated for us that there can be well-meaning and good-hearted people out there who simply do not yet understand what it means to let a heartless corporate entity come in and put the land you love at risk for their greed. They make me want to shake them, but they make me want to reach them even more.
The Columbia river is the life blood of Cascadia. And yet, we have degraded it and polluted it and turned it, here and there, into super-fund sites. We have dumped our poisons and our sewage into it, we have stripped the forests from its banks, dammed its arteries, and stolen every last fish from its waters. We have built stinking mills and belching factories and leaking storage facilities all along its shores. And each time something goes wrong, each time yet another species disappears from the earth, each time yet another link in the chain of life is severed, we say we have learned our lesson. And then, each time some faceless corporation saunters in promising "jobs" and "growth," we throw away the very last vestiges, the last strips of cleansing wetlands, the last pristine forests, the last places on earth where native salmon can spawn. Well this has to be enough. Because this, my friends, may very well be the very last bit. This is a place worth saving. Go out there and see, if you like. And then rise up and stop this LNG plant.
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