Photo: Image courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency

Alaska LNG poses threat to beluga whales, environmental agency says

Construction of the Alaska LNG project proposed by the Alaska Gas Development Corporation (AGDC) could pose a threat to endangered beluga whales, according to an environmental agency.

In its comment on the draft version of an application submitted by AGDC, the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that, halfway through the public comment period for the project, the application was deleted and replaced with a new version.

“A new version of the application was published with calculations that resulted in dramatically reduced impacts to belugas. The revised figures make the application much more likely to be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service,” the agency’s statement reads.

“We have serious concerns about the discrepancies between AGDC’s draft application and the final application and how they were able to arrive at such different conclusions regarding the impact of their activities on belugas given that the project has not changed much if at all,” said EIA policy analyst Daniel Hubbell.

There are an estimated 328 belugas in Cook Inlet and the population is listed as critically endangered. Scientists do not know why they are not recovering but have identified noise as a high-level threat.

The AGDC project, which is an 800-mile pipeline, proposes 101 total days of pile driving in the Inlet, among other noise-related impacts, in areas in or near critical beluga habitat, EIA’s statement reads.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the harming, harassing or injuring of beluga whales unless it can be demonstrated that only “small numbers” of whales will be harmed and that it will have a “negligible impact” on the species or stocks. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the past has approved takes for Cook Inlet belugas not exceeding 10 percent of the population.

AGDC’s final proposal requests an annual take of 32 beluga whales, exactly ten percent of the population, from 2019-2024.

But for over half of the required 30-day public comment period, a draft version of AGDC’s plan estimated as many as 151 whales would be exposed to dangerous levels of noise. The agency also had an incorrect comment period closure date posted on its website for several weeks.

EIA claims that even the 10 percent take would be too high given the fragile status of the population, calling for the NOAA Fisheries to reject AGDC’s application,  until the population’s decline is better understood.

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