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Refuge backing of canal cut seen as unlikely

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

A proposed fuel port on the Tennessee River appears unlikely to get permission from Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge for a canal across refuge property.

The refuge received a permit request last week to cut a waterway through a narrow portion of the refuge to serve barges hauling petroleum gas products. But a refuge official said the deal isn't compatible with the refuge's mission.

The request, made by the Huntsville-Madison County Marina and Port Authority, calls for a 300-foot-wide canal stretching 800 feet across the refuge to private property. It would be directly south of Huntsville International Airport, at the end of Wall-Triana Highway.

The facility, rented by an unidentified petroleum company, would have two pipelines, one directly serving the airport and another pumping fuel to a gas tank farm near Interstate 65 and Interstate 565, said Dwight Cooley, refuge manager.

Ed Mitchell, general manager of the Ditto Landing marina in Huntsville, is planning the enterprise with the marina's and port authority's approval.

He said the project is still in its infancy and would not comment further.

Reports show other proponents for the facility said it can bring cheaper gas prices because tanker trucks — currently picking up fuel at a tank farm south of Birmingham near Pelham — could drive a shorter distance to supply local gas stations.

Cooley said it's a reasonable enterprise and obviously could benefit North Alabama, but the canal is incompatible with the refuge's purpose as a wildlife sanctuary.

For starters, a canal across the refuge would prevent animal movement up and down that section of the riverbank, he said.

"Then you have all sorts of problems with prop wash coming from those big barges into the canal and on the opposite shore," Cooley said. "And in the area where we know there's still DDT-laden sediment, in Indian Creek and Huntsville Spring Branch, there's a possibility of re-exposing those."

Huntsville officials sought the same site for a cargo port in 1999, but public opinion against the enterprise prompted them to drop it before they officially requested a permit.

The first and last time the refuge received an official request to put a port there was in 1971.

It is an ideal site because of its proximity to the airport and intermodal center, Cooley said, but the developers haven't shown there are no alternative sites available beyond refuge borders.

The 34,500-acre refuge occupies about 20 miles of shoreline from Decatur to Huntsville.

Cooley is still considering the request. Should he decline it, the applicants can appeal to the U.S. Department of the Interior or Congress.

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