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Natural gas company fined $200,000 for damaging sea grass beds in Tampa Bay

State environmental regulators announced Friday that they are fining a natural gas company more than $200,000 for killing sea grass beds in Tampa Bay.

A chemical spill by Gulfstream Pipeline last summer damaged sea grass beds about 1,500 feet due east of the Progress Energy power plant on Weedon Island, according to an investigation by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Then, while Gulfstream was trying to clean up the spill, barges being used in the cleanup ran aground, further damaging sea grass in the same area, the DEP found.

Sea grass covers about 28,300 acres of Tampa Bay, providing habitat and food for fish, manatees and other creatures of the state's largest estuary. From 1950 to 1984, more than 40 percent of the bay's sea grasses were wiped out by sewage dumping and coastal development.

Gulfstream is a Tampa-based company formed by a partnership between Oklahoma's Williams Cos. and Spectra Energy of Texas. Gulfstream spokesman Christopher Stockton said the company had cooperated in the investigation and will develop a plan to restore the damaged area.

Seven years ago, Gulfstream built a $1.6 billion pipeline that stretched for more than 400 miles under the Gulf of Mexico to carry natural gas from Mississippi and Alabama to Port Manatee, just south of the Sunshine Skyway. The company then ran about 300 miles of pipeline overland to connect to power plants throughout Central Florida.

Progress Energy announced plans to modify its Pinellas County plant to double its generating capacity and switch it from burning fuel oil to cleaner-burning natural gas. As a result, Gulfstream began digging a 17-mile branch from the Manatee County end of its pipeline to connect to the refurbished plant.

To avoid damaging environmentally sensitive areas in the bay, Gulfstream used a technique called horizontal direct drilling, cutting its hole for the pipeline a minimum of 3 feet down from the bay's bottom. To lubricate the drill, the company used a chemical called bentonite, which is made from volcanic ash.

In June, the bentonite broke out of the hole being drilled, an incident known in the drilling industry as a "frac-out." The chemical spill smothered the sea grass beds, the DEP found.

Nearly an acre of sea grass beds was affected by chemical release, the DEP found. More than a half-acre of sea grass sustained further damage from the grounding of the cleanup barges.

The DEP imposed $175,000 in penalties and costs to Gulfstream, and required it to pay an additional $30,000 for environmental damage to Tampa Bay.

"Sea grass beds are essential not only to our precious marine life, but to the overall health of our economy," DEP Southwest District director Deborah Getzoff said in a news release, adding, "Fortunately, the sea grasses in this area have already begun to re-establish themselves."

fast facts

Follow the pipes

To see how the Gulfstream pipeline was extended underneath Tampa Bay, visit links.tampabay.com.

Natural gas company fined $200,000 for damaging sea grass beds in Tampa Bay 04/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 10:58pm]
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