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Keystone constuction likely to harm wildlife, aesthetics near parks, Interior reports

By Mark Drajem

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — Building the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to more manmade light and noise in sparsely populated regions, which may harm natural resources, wildlife and visitors to national parks, the Interior Department said.

In comments submitted to the State Department as part of an environmental review, Interior warned that developer TransCanada Corp. isn't adequately dealing with risks to "cultural soundscapes" and "high quality night skies" from disturbances during construction and from pumping stations that keep oil flowing along the route.

"The cumulative effects of the project could adversely impact the quality of the night skies and the overall photic environment," Willie Taylor, director of the office of environmental policy at Interior, wrote in a letter on April 29. The State Department posted the letter on its website this week as it releases 1.2 million comments received about the project.

The agency is reviewing Keystone, which would transport bitumen from Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, because it would cross an international border. A final report on the pipeline's environmental impact may be issued as early as September. After that, the department will conduct a 90-day review to determine if Keystone is in the national interest, pushing a final decision to late this year or 2014.

Environmental groups oppose the pipeline, citing the contributions of Alberta oil production to climate change and the risk of oil spills along the more than 875-mile (1,408- kilometer) route from Canada to Steele City, Neb.

In separate comments in April, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the State Department to analyze the costs of greenhouse-gas emissions by refining the tar sands into fuel. Greenhouse-gas emissions from refining oil sands are 17 percent greater than conventional crude oil, the agency said.

The Interior Department focused on the pipeline's impact on U.S. national parks and other public lands managed by the agency, and the comments underscore the level of scrutiny the project is getting as part of the review.

The pipeline won't pass near the most-visited parks, such as Yellowstone in Wyoming. It will cross the popular Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, which stretches across 11 states, and the Missouri National Recreational River in South Dakota and Nebraska, which combined draw an average more than 386,000 visitors a year, according to park service data.

Interior also mentions impacts to the Niobrara National Scenic River in northern Nebraska, which gets about 68,000 visitors a year. The impact of the ambient light from the pipeline could be felt far from parks adjacent to the project, Interior said in its letter.

In addition to the impacts of light and noise, the department said it "has concerns with the proposed pipeline's stream and wetland crossings," especially those near parks, such as the Missouri recreation area.

To curb interference from noise and light, TransCanada should employ "mitigation measures such as shielded, full- cutoff lighting, timers, and motion sensitive switches," and use "the minimum amount of illumination" for tasks along the pipeline,'' according to the comments.

The Interior Department's comments faulted the environmental review's recommendation for noise near pump stations to meet the level common in communities rather than for a park environment "where many people go to get away from the clamor of everyday life."

In addition, "we recommend further information and analysis of the cumulative effects of noise on visitors and natural resources be conducted," it said.