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COOS BAY — On Tuesday evening, the City of Coos Bay Planning Commission decided to leave open a public record regarding a permit for an eelgrass mitigation plan proposed by the Jordan Cove Energy Project.

Public comment will be left open an additional week, ending Oct. 1. The Planning Commission will meet again in late October to make a decision on whether the proposed mitigation plan by the JCEP meets the requirements set in place by the Coos Bay Estuary Management Plan.

Eelgrass is a protected species that provides habitat for various marine life. If a project disturbs the marine plant life, then a mitigation plan must be put in place to preserve the species. Eelgrass is known to provide a rearing area for juvenile Dungeness crab before they’re large enough to head out to sea.

The applicant proposes to move chutes of eelgrass from a proposed dredge site to an area south of the airport.

Mitigation is the key word the Planning Commission must consider in making its decision in the matter.

“We’re merely here tonight to determine if this is an allowed use within the district,” Coos Bay Planning Commissioner Chris Hood said.

According to the Lane Council of Governments, which prepared the city of Coos Bay’s staff report, mitigation, as defined in the CEMP, cannot be successful without enhancement, and enhancement is a form of mitigation.

After LCOG gave the staff report, land use lawyer Steve Pfeifer spoke on behalf of the applicant Jordan Cove LNG stating the contents of the actual plan is not something the Planning Commission has to make a determination on. The science of the plan is being reviewed by the Department of State Lands and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

“We know in advance that there will be an obligation under state and federal rules to replace the eelgrass that would be lost as a result of the construction of the access channel ... You have to make a fundamental determination what’s proposed in this application (is) mitigation, as defined in the CEMP, because, if so, it’s allowed as a use with no other criteria to be addressed,” Pfeifer said.

If state and federal entities decide to approve separate permits which involve eelgrass mitigation, the JCEP would be held to a five-year monitoring period, and if the eelgrass fails to take root in its new location, then the project's applicants will be held accountable and made to develop a new plan to plant more eelgrass.

“If at the end of that five-year period or at any point in the middle the eelgrass fails, we’re going to go back. We have to do it, it’s a loop. You never get out of it until you get a declaration of success,” Pfeifer said.

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Jason Stutes, an ecologist contracted by the Jordan Cove project to work on the mitigation project spoke to the council about eelgrass and the work that went into the JCEP proposal. Stutes has worked with eelgrass enhancement and restoration for the past 12 years and claims to have over a 90-percent success rate among his various eelgrass projects.

“Eelgrass is a plant that lives at the bottom of the ocean generally (and) lives wherever it can based on its conditions,” Stutes said. “Eelgrass has an upper limit and a lower limit. The lower limit is dictated by light availability at the bottom — how much light makes it through the water. The upper limit is limited by heat stress and drying out during low tide.”

Stutes went on to explain the initial mitigation site was designed as a bowl, but that has since been changed. The new plan includes a breach in the bowl design to allow water to flow in and out more freely and not trap fish at low tide.

“Whenever you do a mitigation like this, it’s a net benefit. We’re going to take one habitat type and replace it with another habitat type, but in theory were going to enhance the function of that area by creating eelgrass habitat,” Stutes said.

Speaking directly to the enhancement aspect of mitigation definition in the CEMP, Stutes said that the JCEP is enhancing the area where eelgrass will be transferred, because it would enhance the function of the habitat in that area.

Following the JCEP’s presentation to the Planning Commission, the public hearing opened and a number of folks stated their support for the project. After supporters spoke, those in opposition took the stand to express why they felt the application should not be considered mitigation under the CEMP.

Much of the arguments in opposition  of the application revolved around destroying a known eelgrass habitat in hopes a new eelgrass habitat will take root at the site where it's transferred.

One citizen, Tim Palmer, read the testimony of local marine biologist Mike Graybill, who was unable to attend the meeting. Graybill argued that the plan requires dredging of nine acres of wetland to construct 2.7 acres of eelgrass habitat, if the plan works.

“Basically what they’re proposing to do is make a series of depressions on a tidal flat, basically puddles on a tidal flat,” professor of marine biology Alan Shanks said. “Whenever you create a depression on a tidal flat, as the current flows over the top it slows down as it fills with water and sediment is deposited."

"Several years ago, I had graduate students working on that tidal flat, measuring the sedimentation rate," Shanks added. "What they observed was a sedimentation rate of about an inch a week. In other words, if that sedimentation rate occurs in those puddles, the puddles are going to disappear really fast and you’re going to have a tidal flat again, which will have an elevation too high for eelgrass to survive, and if eelgrass does not survive, how can that possibly be considered mitigation?”

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Nicholas A. Johnson can be reached at 541-266-6049, or by email at nicholas.johnson@theworldlink.com.

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