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Originally published Friday, August 23, 2013 at 4:07 PM

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Guest: Tidal-energy project threatens Puget Sound orcas

A Puget Sound tidal-energy experiment could endanger beloved orcas, writes guest columnist Shari Tarantino.

Special to The Times

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Shari, I think this is premature, and in a larger context, misguided. People want/need... MORE
Guess what: there are environmental trade-offs for every form of energy. MORE
Shari: 1) Orcas don't swim that deep. 2) The blades turn at like 12 rpm. Don't... MORE


PUGET Sound killer whales retained an important protection recently when a petition to remove them from the endangered-species list failed.

Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento had challenged the orcas’ protection under the Endangered Species Act, and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) rejected the petition.

But that does not mean our orcas are now out from danger.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is finalizing a $10 million grant for an experimental tidal-energy project at the bottom of Puget Sound in Admiralty Inlet that poses a new threat to orcas that hunt for food there.

Much has been written — some positive, some negative — about the DOE providing research and development funding and financial incentives to jump-start new and innovative energy technologies that might not get off the ground otherwise.

President Obama’s plan to combat climate change has the country debating how we can generate energy in new ways and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

On the plus side, the DOE’s programs push the boundaries of innovation and have the potential to develop technologies that can help wean America from its dependence on foreign energy.

However, this $10 million tidal-energy project could prove catastrophic.

The project could devastate elegant and innocent marine mammals — specifically, the federally protected orca pods scientists have documented traveling through and foraging in Admiralty Inlet. These magnificent iconic symbols of the Pacific Northwest are so beloved that neighbors and tourists flock to the area just to catch a glimpse of them.

This massive pilot tidal-energy project intends to place two turbines, each 10 meters high and weighing 386 metric tons, on the inlet floor. A series of blades spin in the middle of both to generate electricity.

In 2009, OpenHydro failed with the pilot project in the Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic Coast when all 12 blades were destroyed within 20 days of installation. Tidal flows were two-and-half-times stronger than the turbine was designed to handle.

The noise and vibrations from the turbines will range between 125 and 175 decibels. Orcas react strongly to a pain threshold of 135 decibels. With the possibility of other sound pollution that could mask the turbines, it’s possible a whale could swim into the blades.

It could be argued that the turbines spin relatively slowly. But given the ocean currents, the Snohomish County Public Utility District abandoned an electronic brake to stop the turbines in the event of an emergency.

Now the plan for an emergency would be to knock a locking pin through the spinning turbines using a remote-controlled submersible vessel, which could be like thrusting a stick through the spokes of a spinning wheel.

If an orca or other endangered species are stuck in the blades, is it possible to take immediate action to prevent death or serious injury? The answer is no.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staff recently recommended this project’s approval based on analysis from the DOE-funded Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Not only was this analysis limited in scope, but can we trust this lab’s impartiality given how it’s funded?

The report doesn’t consider the consequences of a baby whale becoming entangled in these turbines. Nor does it consider project noise, louder than a jackhammer, at levels legally constituting “harassment.” FERC reached its conclusion without benefit of a biological opinion from NOAA, the agency with the appropriate expertise. If we lose one orca the whole population is at risk.

The future of our planet depends on combating climate change, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of protected species, threatened by experimental projects financed with taxpayer dollars. There is simply too much risk in this project, risk that is entirely avoidable, and too much hope for success tied to unproven innovations.

Let’s take a closer look at this dangerous tidal-energy project, and consider whether it really creates a better world for us and for future generations. Let’s implore the federal government and the Snohomish County Public Utility District to move their experiment someplace where it will not do harm to federally protected species.

Shari Tarantino is board president for the Seattle-based Orca Conservancy.

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