Sequim marine science lab gets more congressional attention

SEQUIM — Seventy-seven scientists and staff, with offices on the edge of Sequim Bay, share a national mission and an ocean of potential.

So said Charlie Brandt, director of the Sequim Marine Sciences Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s coastal research arm, during a visit from U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee on Tuesday.

The lab is part of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and as such “we should be working on national problems,” Brandt told the congressman.

Inslee, a Democrat representing Washington state’s 1st congressional district, serves on the House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees.

He said he wants to see Congress pour money into tidal-power research, green jobs and Sequim.

So Brandt and a team of researchers outlined the lab’s threefold vision, which reaches far beyond this region: conducting research that preserves coastal security, understanding the effects of population and climate change on the marine environment and jump-starting tidal power generation in this country.

Congressional attention

That third initiative is getting Congress’ attention these days.

Last week, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Freeland, got a bill that would allocate $1.75 million for tidal power research at the Sequim lab passed by the full Senate.

The legislation will next go to a House-Senate conference committee and, Murray hopes, to President Barack Obama’s desk for a signature before fiscal 2010 starts Oct. 1.

But both Inslee and Brandt want to see a lot more federal money budgeted for the study of tidal power.

Brandt’s goal is to build a permanent tidal-power test site in Sequim Bay. He estimates its cost at $5 million to $7 million, including expansion of the lab’s dock and installation of the moorings and instrumentation.

‘Premier tidal resource’

The Sequim lab, Brandt said, is situated alongside “the premier tidal resource in the nation,” the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

At this point, however, there is no framework and very little funding for a national tidal-power system. While Great Britain has allocated $36 million for study and construction of tidal-power systems, Brandt said, the United States has allocated $1.2 million.

The Sequim Marine Sciences Laboratory, he said, has “an opportunity to bring change to the nation’s energy agenda.”

So America’s thirst for electricity could begin to be quenched here — but first Sequim’s scientists must explore ways to build tidal turbines that won’t foul the ocean and harm its creatures.

Again, Brandt said, this lab is positioned well for the task.

Its water supply and water treatment system enable it to reconstruct any body of water that exists anywhere in the world. Scientists can build models to test how turbine designs would affect whales, seals, dolphins, fish and the whole marine ecosystem.

While the tidal-power resource out there is “huge,” added Brandt, “we need to know the environmental impacts before we can put one in the water and test it.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires extensive monitoring data before it will let any company build a power plant under any sea.

Generic information is needed, Brandt said, so that NOAA can begin to issue permits to organizations on America’s two coasts, not just in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Marine mammals

Inslee asked what is known about marine mammals’ ability to navigate around undersea power cables and machines. That’s what the lab will study, Brandt replied: Scientists would explore ways to alert and detect the animals as they come close to the tidal-power devices.

They would also study how to construct large-scale power-generating facilities that can coexist with all forms of ocean life.

“Having three devices out there is one thing. Having a farm out there is another,” Brandt said.

At the Sequim lab, scientists have been studying human impacts on coastal areas for some 40 years, ever since the Battelle Memorial Institute became the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s contractor on the North Olympic Peninsula. Brandt said his lab excels in interdisciplinary research, bringing together biologists, chemists, marine ecologists and computer modelers to innovate together.

This exploration of coastal health problems and solutions, Brandt believes, is more pressing than ever. Fifty-five percent of the nation’s population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, he noted; 10 to 15 percent of our protein supply comes from the sea, and about 90 percent of our trade volume comes in from the coasts.

“This is a nexus of need,” Brandt said, which attracted him to Sequim after he worked for 15 years at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s headquarters in Richland, near its Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

For many years, the Sequim lab’s researchers have been studying how mollusks — clams, mussels, oysters — can be employed as living sensors to detect a bioterrorist attack on the coast. That’s part of the lab’s coastal security work.

Another ongoing initiative: the study of how marine algae can be used to make renewable biofuels. Murray came to the Sequim lab last fall for a presentation on that research, led by Michael Huesemann.

Inslee, at the end of his visit Tuesday, told Brandt that he wants to make sure that if and when more federal money is allocated for tidal-power research here, it provides some relief for the area’s economic struggles. A standardized test site for tidal-power generation devices is “very appealing,” he said.

“You’re part of the job-creation chain,” Inslee added.

“People in my position are thinking jobs. You may not think of yourselves as job creators, but you are, when you give us this science.”

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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