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Center for Biological Diversity

Wildlife group, utility at odds over rare loach minnow

A tiny fish and a utility company's plan to repair a natural gas pipeline along an eastern Arizona river have a wildlife advocacy group tangling with federal regulators.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to reconsider its support for the El Paso Corp. project, which involves a third of an acre next to the San Francisco River near Clifton.

The center argues that a plan to redirect the river while the utility replaces and covers an exposed section of pipeline hasn't adequately considered the potential impact on the loach minnow. Its petition, filed Sept. 21, asks for a full environmental impact statement and contends that federal officials failed to adequately examine all alternatives for the project, including removing the pipeline.

"This action will jeopardize the survival and recovery of the loach minnow," Jay Lininger, an ecologist affiliated with the group, said in a telephone interview.

The loach minnow is classified as a threatened species, one level removed from endangered, and lives in federally protected habitat in the Gila River Valley and is found in other areas of eastern and southeastern Arizona.

Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Houston-based El Paso Corp., said utility officials are confident that they have met all federal requirements and that the project will proceed as planned.

"We don't think [the petition] will have any significant effect on this project," he said.

The pipeline was laid in 1967. As decades passed, the river eroded the surrounding sediment, exposing three segments. That created what Wheatley calls a "safety and integrity issue."

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El Paso's plan calls for the river to be temporarily diverted while the segments are replaced and buried approximately 15 feet beneath the channel.

Once the new pipe is laid, the river's banks would be restored to their original contours. Any fish secured in the process would be held and returned to the river upon the project's completion, according to the proposal.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review earlier this summer found no loach minnows in the area. While the report noted that the project would temporarily disrupt the natural floodplain and release sediment into the river, it raised no objection to the project.

"There are 522 miles of river that are designated as critical habitat for this minnow," said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the agency, "and this proposed development site is only a third of an acre."

However, Lininger, the ecologist affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the review "spotty and incomplete."

"In order to find loach minnow, one has to look for them," he said.

The petition also argues that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is required under the National Environmental Policy Act to prepare a more involved environmental impact statement before acting on the matter.

A spokeswoman at the commission's headquarters in Washington said officials have until mid-October to respond to the petition. She declined to discuss the arguments in the petition or how the commission would respond.

The center has a long history of filing lawsuits over wildlife, but Lininger said he didn't know whether it would sue if the agency rejects its petition. 

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Glen Knowles/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The tiny loach minnow is focus of a dispute putting a wlidlife advocacy group against federal regulators. The Center for Biological Diversity objects to a utility’s plan to temporarily redirect the San Francisco River near the eastern Arizona community of Clifton so it can repair and bury a natural gas pipeline.

Facts about the loach minnow

  • Scientific name: Tiaroga cobitis
  • Size: Adults can reach 2.6 inches in length.
  • Range: Eastern Arizona, including the Gila and San Pedro rivers, and western New Mexico.
  • Status: Listed as threatened species in 1986.