2009-12-03 / Front Page

Battle against LNG readied

By Phil Zahodiakin

Grassroots efforts to block a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal proposed for Mt. Hope Bay have redoubled in the wake of a federal appellate court decision slamming the door on the R.I. agency that reviews applications to dredge in the state’s coastal waters.

Under the proposal from Weaver’s Cove Energy, a subsidiary of Amerada Hess, the LNG terminal would be constructed about a mile from the Fall River shoreline, where a storage facility would be built to receive the gas from an expected 140 supertanker shipments per year.

The East Passage, which the tankers would use to transit into Mt. Hope Bay, is deep enough for the ships, but Weaver’s Cove would have to dredge the channel leading up to the site of the terminal – a project requiring permits from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and the Army Corps of Engineers.

On Oct. 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the Coastal Resources Management Council had run out of time to process the permit application from Weaver’s Cove, leaving the application review in the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers.

John Torgan, Narragansett baykeeper and advocacy director for Save the Bay, said the volume of sediment that Weaver’s Cove would have to dredge “is upwards of 3.5 million cubic yards.” However, all but 230,000 cubic yards of the total would be dredged out of Massachusetts waters, and “the Massachusetts review of the permit application for that dredging is alive and ongoing,” he said.

Torgan also said that “there are still some 21 state and federal permits that Weaver’s Cove has to obtain before starting construction.” Moreover, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates natural gas transmission facilities – and which will have the final say on the project – has yet to issue an environmental impact statement for the proposal.

An earlier proposal, which failed to pass U.S. Coast Guard muster, proposed to build the terminal on a shoreline site north of the Braga and Brightman Street Bridges. Weaver’s Cove responded to the Coast Guard’s concerns with its 2008 proposal to site the terminal in the bay.

Save the Bay this week launched a campaign “to make sure that people are aware of the Weaver’s Cove proposal and the EIS, which may be released before the end of the year,” Torgan said. “The EIS will be several ‘phone books’ thick, and we want to equip people with the information they’ll need to provide FERC with informed and appropriate public comments. It’s all part of the overriding goal of our campaign: Preventing this project from going forward.”

To that end, said Save the Bay Communications Director John Martin, the group this Monday started running its campaign messages in newspapers and radio spots. The group also has a commitment for billboard space on Rt. 24 or I-195 – whichever billboard becomes available first.

Additionally, “a number of environmental groups have asked for links to our website,” Martin said, “and we’ll be e-mailing our message to all our members – a constituency of 12,000 people. Our social networks account for many more supporters, and we’ll be reaching out to them as well.”

The website also includes etools that enable people to send letters – or Save the Bay’s recommended letter – to their senators and representatives, Martin said.

“We have a downloadable petition which we’re asking people to circulate in their neighborhoods or their places of worship or anywhere else where people are picking up on our concerns,” he said. “We’re also in the final stages of setting up an online petition. We’re hoping to sustain our amplified campaign all the way up to the EIS hearings, which FERC could open this winter. But, that’s not to say that people haven’t been hearing our message: We were quite encouraged by the strong response of our constituency when they heard about the court decision.”

The decision affirmed a U.S. district court ruling against the CRMC – which, Weaver’s Cove asserted, had waived its right of review by failing to issue a decision on the permit application within the timeframe specified by the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. The CRMC argued that the regulatory clock could not start ticking until the application was complete. But the district court ruled that the timeframe, which is intended to ensure that no individual state can arbitrarily delay a project, had been violated.

CRMC Public Educator and Information Coordinator Laura Ricketson-Dwyer said that the council had not engaged in any “arbitrary” delay.

“We had to know where the dredge material would be going,” she said. “We have a prerequisite regulation requiring applicants to provide a letter of acceptance from the disposal facility.

“We were concerned,” Ricketson Dwyer continued, “because Weaver’s Cove had indicated that the material would be sent out of state, but we didn’t have their plan and, as the responsible state agency, we had to make sure that the material wouldn’t return in Rhode Island. We didn’t want a situation like the infamous New York City ‘garbage barge to nowhere.’ We didn’t want a ‘dredge scow to nowhere.’ So, based on that lack of information, we could not accept the application as complete.”

Michael Rubin, an assistant state attorney general and chief of the environmental unit in the state AG’s office, represented the CRMC in the Weaver’s Cove case. He said that the state would not appeal the decision of the three-judge panel to the full panel of First Circuit Court judges, adding, “We have suffered a setback, but that’s all it is. There are many more fronts on which we intend to fight this proposal. The decision does not preclude FERC from forcing Weaver’s Cove to return to the CRMC for a review of issues that weren’t included in the court decision, including the hazards from scow transits.”

Rubin explained that there is a threat of environmental damage from dredge sediments spilling off the barges.

“There is also a concern about the hazards from the 800-foot tow lines,” he said. “You’d be looking at approximately 1,000 scow transits through Newport harbor, including transits at the height of the boating season, and there are documented cases of masts being ripped off sailboats by those cables. The court decision doesn’t preclude a review of those hazards, so this decision is not, by any means, the end of our fight against this abomination.”

Rubin added that there will be exclusionary zones around the tankers, and that their arrival in the bay will be practically unannounced.

“Assuming you’re listening to the marine band on your radio, you’ll have 15 or 20 minutes in which to get out of those zones – two miles ahead of the tankers and one mile behind – or you’ll find your boat being boarded by Coast Guardsmen or private security agents,” he said. “I am not exaggerating. It’s going to be a very grim scene out there if this proposal goes through.”

Information about the Save the Bay campaign is available at www.savebay.org.

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