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Wrangling continues over gas terminal

N.J. boating advocates say tanker shipments to a proposed LNG facility would disrupt Delaware River travel

N.J. boating advocates say tanker shipments to a proposed LNG facility would disrupt Delaware River travel

New Jersey environmental regulators are concerned that construction of a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal on the Delaware River would, for days at a time, close down river travel for both recreational and commercial vessels. These concerns are being weighed against an acknowledged need for new energy supplies for the Mid-Atlantic states.

The so-called Crown Landing proposal, a project of energy giant British Petroleum, would bring thousand-foot-long LNG tankers about 60 miles up the Delaware Bay and River three times a week to Logan Township, N.J. According to the Coast Guard, the ships, due to their explosive cargoes and fears of terrorist attacks, would require military escorts and be surrounded by vast safety zones from which other vessels would be excluded. BP proposes to build a pier that would extend 2,000 feet into the river, with a 1,500-foot safety zone projecting from the end of the pier, according to the state.

“Recreational boating access to these public waters will be severely limited by the construction of the approximate 2,250-foot berth and the additional 1,500-foot Homeland Security buffer,” the state says in its most recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “This project will have a negative effect on small boat and large ship traffic in the area.”

A BP spokesman insists that New Jersey’s concerns have been overcome by a Coast Guard review that resulted in temporary approval of the project by that agency. “The conclusion of that study is that no significant impact on recreational boating is anticipated,” says Tom Mueller, the BP spokesman.

In a letter to the FERC, the Coast Guard wrote: “Under normal security conditions, these measures should not affect vehicular traffic, nor restrict the public’s access to shoreside recreation sites or unreasonably impede recreational boating.”

But a New Jersey spokesman disagrees that the issue has been resolved. “A lot of the issues … still remain to be addressed through our local permitting process,” says Fred Mumford, the spokesman.

BoatU.S. has a similar concern. “Any time there’s a loss of access — and this certainly fits that bill — we’re concerned,” says Scott Croft, a spokesman for the recreational boating organization.

New Jersey’s concerns are not the only hurdles faced by BP. Delaware, which owns the river bottom up to the New Jersey shore, has told the company its plan violates the state’s Coastal Zone Act. Ironically, New Jersey has asked the United States Supreme Court to intervene and declare that the GardenState, not Delaware, is responsible for regulating the project.

The Crown Landing project faces hurdles similar to an LNG project proposed for Long Island Sound. There, Broadwater Energy, a consortium of energy companies, would construct a floating terminal, permanently moored in 70 feet of water in the broadest part of the Sound. Tank ships would unload their cargo at the terminal about nine miles from the Long Island shore and 11 miles from Connecticut, where state officials have voiced concern about the safety and environmental impact of the proposal.

The Crown Landing project was announced two years ago as a means of supplying natural gas to the Mid-Atlantic region. Spokesman Mueller says the company plans to bring three 1,000-foot tankers to the terminal each week, enough to provide about 15 percent of the area’s natural gas needs.

The project will consist of “a pier for offloading ships, three storage tanks for holding the LNG, some heaters for warming it up and the associated piping for adding odorant and pressurizing it up to the transmission line pressure,” Mueller explains. “With LNG, the material is transported at minus 260 degrees [Fahrenheit]. That’s how we get the natural gas to a liquid state, by chilling it and putting it on the insulated ships.” He says the storage tanks on shore are insulated, as well.

The LNG tankers, each with a 38-foot draft, will be moored along the pier, presenting their beams to the ebb and flow of the tidal current, Mueller says. Because the pier would be located in what now is shown on NOAA charts to be a shoal area with depths of 1 to 5 feet, BP would have to dredge a trench from the marked channel to the shore, a distance according to NOAA charts of about 3,000 feet in a place where the river is about one mile wide.

“By using the perpendicular berth, we create a safety zone around the ship via the shallow water,” Mueller says. “That minimizes dredging.” He says the tanker’s exposure to broadside currents has been studied. “We don’t anticipate any problems maneuvering the ship in the tidal currents. We’ll have three very large tractor tugs that will accompany our ships up the river.” Those tugs are so powerful, Mueller says, that they can maneuver a tanker even if the ship’s rudder is stuck hard over to one side.”

A similar facility, the CovePointLNG terminal, already exists on the Chesapeake Bay near the Calvert Cliffs. Operated by Dominion Resources Inc., the plant is the largest LNG importing facility in the nation.

Ships steaming the 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to Cove Point are given a safety zone of two miles off the bow, one mile off the stern and 500 feet on either side, according to Randall Bourgeois, vice president of the Association of Maryland pilots. There are two sections of restricted channel — one 30 miles long and the other 15 miles — which other ships are not allowed to share with an LNG tanker, he says. Pilots coordinate their movements so that the LNG tanker traffic has little effect on the schedules of other ships, he says. Occasionally, the ships get a Coast Guard escort, but not always, he says.

There seem to be few problems for recreational boaters since the facility opened after a 20-year shutdown brought on by high LNG prices, other than the need to stay clear of the well-marked tankers. “Probably the biggest problem is when it was shut down, it created a fishing Mecca down here,” says Jim Sharkey, manager of Zahniser’s Marina in nearby Solomon’s Island. “I can’t really say that I’ve heard any complaints. They continuously broadcast on the VHF radio about safe distances.”

Those distances are imposed because an accidental or intentional rupture of an LNG ship could create a potentially devastating fireball, all agree. Some opponents of the facilities envision a Hiroshima-style blast that could wipe out whole cities. BP spokesman Mueller points to a study conducted by the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., as evidence those fears are unfounded.

“If you’re outside a mile from an LNG terminal or as a ship comes in, the potential hazards to you are pretty low … even for very large spills,” Mike Hightower, lead author of the Sandia study, says. “If it’s closer in, the hazards get higher.”

The assumption Hightower makes in coming to this conclusion is that the source of an LNG leak — say a terrorist rocket — would also provide a flame to ignite the liquid in the ship. Were the LNG not exposed to an ignition source, Hightower says, it is possible that a cloud of vapor could escape the ship and travel a distance before being ignited or being harmlessly dispersed in the atmosphere. He puts the outer limit of a dangerous vapor cloud at two miles. He explains that the concentration of LNG in the air that is flammable is between 15 percent and 5 percent. Above 15 percent, the vapor is too dense to ignite, below 5 percent it is too dispersed, he says.

The Coast Guard, which is responsible for assessing the safety and maritime impact of LNG projects, has told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the safety and navigation issues surrounding the Crown Landing project can be handled, although the agency says that it will need more resources to protect LNG shipping on the Delaware.