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Unsafe site for LNG

IN GIVING initial approval to a new liquefied natural gas terminal in Fall River, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff apparently has more confidence in the ability to defend it against terrorists than does Richard Clarke, the former White House antiterrorism official who thinks such facilities are vulnerable. This is a disagreement that need not be put to a life-or-death test if the commission would override the staff recommendation, reject the Fall River proposal, and insist that new LNG terminals be built offshore or in uninhabited coastal areas.

The Fall River site picked by Weaver's Cove Energy is anything but uninhabited. As the regulatory commission's environmental impact statement notes, the site's storage tank would be within a half-mile of 1,200 housing units. There are 5,100 housing units within a mile. According to the Sandia National Laboratories study for the US Department of Energy last year, an attack on an LNG tanker would endanger residents within three-quarters of a mile. New England, which is increasingly using natural gas to fuel its electric power stations, needs more LNG, but it should not be delivered in a way that puts thousands of residents at risk.

Congress recognized the special hazard of LNG terminals long before Sept. 11. In 1979, it passed congressman Edward J. Markey's Pipeline Safety Act, which stated that, in siting LNG pipeline facilities, federal officials should take into consideration "the need to encourage remote siting."

In comments last September on the draft report for the Fall River plan, aides to Attorney General Thomas Reilly took the commission staff to task for not giving sufficient consideration to alternatives. These now include two proposals for offshore LNG terminals east of Gloucester and others for onshore facilities in lightly populated locations in Maine and Canada's maritime provinces.

Offshore terminals have a disadvantage:

They have no storage capacity and simply receive the revaporized LNG from tankers and pipe it into the region's pipeline network.

Storage of LNG is important in winter months when the fuel is trucked to local gas systems in New England that cannot meet their needs with pipeline gas. But a remotely located onshore facility could provide that capacity.

This would mean longer truck trips, but that extra cost has to be measured against the danger to human life that a site like Fall River's poses.

The overarching failing of the commission statement is that it doesn't place the Fall River proposal in the broadest possible context of New England's natural gas needs and all possible ways to meet them. Residents of Fall River and nearby communities in this state and Rhode Island should not be put at risk because of this shortsightedness.

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