2007-05-17 / Front Page

Coast Guard gives preliminary 'no' to LNG terminal

By Dotti Farrington

The U.S. Coast Guard this month issued a preliminary ruling against most recent plans of Weaver's Cove for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Fall River, Mass., but the LNG company insisted it can resolve whatever problems the Coast Guard has cited.

Some opponents of the LNG terminal plans hailed the Coast Guard ruling as a definitive blocking of the terminal, but the Coast Guard itself said it would give another round of reviews, including more public hearings, if Weaver's Cove wants to proceed. Other opponents talked about "guarded optimism" because of the ruling.

Weaver's Cove Energy, the company that wants to put the terminal in Fall River has overcome negative reports in the past, including a seemingly disastrous federal report a few years ago about the potential fire hazards of LNG tankers that opponents were sure would end the plans.

Weaver's Cove overcame that report but is again facing new fire hazard warnings, as well as this newest hurdle, the Coast Guard findings.

The new Coast Guard assessment is that smaller, 725-foot tankers will not resolve waterway maneuvering problems expected with LNG deliveries via Narragansett Bay and the Taunton River. The tanker route would impact all communities along the river and bay, including Jamestown.

Save the Bay was the first of the LNG opponents to hail the Coast Guard's preliminary rejection this month of the 2006-07 plans as definite blocking of the terminal.

Curt Spalding, the executive director of Save The Bay, said, "This is an enormous victory for the bay community."

"We strongly urged the Coast Guard to put the interests of the bay first and it has done so. As we have said from the beginning, Weaver's Cove LNG is not right for the bay, and we are extremely pleased that the Coast Guard's assessment reached the same conclusion," Spalding continued.

Capt. Roy A. Nash, captain of the Port of Southeastern New England, based at Wood's Hole, Mass., issued the new ruling and spelled out options for Weaver's Cove to pursue its goal. The company said it would ask for more reviews.

Nash summary

Nash said in the new ruling that the LNG navigation and safety plan did not meet concerns about handling tight access to the terminal on the Taunton River, mainly because of the existence of the old Brightman Street Bridge there. The state of Massachusetts purposely cancelled consideration to tear down that bridge, expecting the bridge would block use of super-sized 850-foot tankers that were originally proposed. The state identified the bridge retention as one of its many efforts to block the LNG terminal. Weaver's Cove responded with plans for smaller tankers, filing amendments in March 2006, and in February 2007, to its original plans.

In a letter to Gordon Shearer, chief executive officer of Weaver's Cove, Nash said, "The recent submission of vessel transit modeling does not include either Marine Safety International's or the individual marine pilots' conclusion that smaller LNG tankers can be safely navigated through the waterway on a consistent repeatable basis."

Based on his review of several documents and plan amendments, Nash wrote, "the waterway may not be suitable for the type and frequency of LNG marine traffic contained in your smaller tanker proposal." Concerns include complex maneuvering that LNG tankers would need to accomplish to pass through the old and new Brightman Street bridges, which are only 1,100 feet apart on the Taunton River.

Nash wrote a two page letter and 14-page review of safety factors of the LNG plan. He said his findings were a "preliminary assessment" and do not represent a final action. He asked Shearer to specify in writing if the company has "desire to move forward." The company responded immediately that it will ask to proceed.

Nash said, "The sum of measures, mitigations and precautions described in the Weaver's Cove proposal do not appear to suffi- ciently reduce the risks to a point where the waterway could be declared suitable for the proposed cargo transit."

Nash itemized many issues, such as "prolonged, frequent exposure (by all waterfront commu- nities) to safety and security risks during the transits," and expected delays as tankers passed through five bridge crossings, including the Newport Pell Bridge.

Nash said the existing environmental impact statement (EIS) was inadequate to assess the use of smaller tankers. The smaller tankers would make up to 130 trips a year. The original plan with larger ships called for 60 trips a year.

Nash identified other issues including: proximity of the waterway to population concentrations; a severe turn beneath and just north of the Braga Bridge; exposure of region communities (including Jamestown) to safety and security risks during transits; delays to marine and vehicular traffic associated with LNG tankers movements; and unfavorable and limiting conditions such as navigating through or under five bridge crossings, vessel draft, tide, wind, visibility, and infrastructure.

Nash said if Weaver's Cove wants to go through additional technical scrutiny and public hearings it would have to submit more EIS data and conduct workshops about risks, impacts, and resources to make sure all implications are well understood and quantified.

Nash reported that Weaver's Cove had not given answers to 17 different problems that he expressed concerns about to the company in early 2006.

For example, Nash said, if a tanker were to strike a bridge, it would have no room to maneuver, and there was no plan in place if a ship were to become stuck in place.

Local actions

Town Councilors last month ratified a letter of opposition signed by Council President David Long to the LNG facility in Fall River.

Long cited the town's lengthy and consistent opposition to LNG efforts and referred to Nash's ruling being expected soon.

Long wrote to Nash, that "The Coast Guard's letter of recommendation on waterway suitability is an extremely important decision to the future viability of this project and the whole region." He wrote, "the council believes that the proposed project poses unacceptable risks from the standpoint of navigational safety, environmental quality, and bay security."

2005 Approval

The Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) approved the Weaver's Cove plan in 2005 to import and store up to 800 million cubic feet of gas per day for customers in the Northeast. FERC said the project would serve the public interest by meeting the New England region's growing demand for natural gas. The FERC approval was conditioned on coordination with and approvals by other federal agencies for safety and security.

A court appeal, in First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston with the Nature Conservatory as a lead challenger, is still pending on the 2005-06 FERC approvals of the Fall River project.

Weaver's Cove officers said at an industry forum in mid-April they are optimistic about gaining all needed permits and winning the court case, but acknowledged that opposition has added about $100 million in costs to the originally budgeted $400 million development plans.

Other actions

Weaver's Cove has been awaiting an Army Corps of Engineering decision about plans to dredge nearly three million cubic yards of sediment from Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River.

The federal government accountability office recently issued a new Congressional report finding that a fire from an LNG tanker could produce heat, not flames or explosions, which would burn people one mile away. The study urged the U.S. Energy Office to perform new research on the risks from a major fire or gas release in terror attacks or natural disasters on such tanker ships.

The U.S. Congressional Homeland Security Committee in March asked the Coast Guard to review its position about having enough resources to deal with LNG activities, including applications for 10 new mainland facilities and five offshore depots. Rear Admiral Brian M. Salerno, Coast Guard director of inspection and compliance, said his office was reviewing concerns.

FERC, as lead federal agency with authority over LNG operations, said no facilities would be approved without emergency response plans and other security features. One state, California, with its own on-going efforts to fight a LNG project, is claiming state authority over FERC.

In Rhode Island, Save The Bay is among several organizations opposing the LNG project because of dredging as well as security zones for the tankers. It recently launched its own website for opposition, www.stopweaverscove.com.

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