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Life uneasy on 'the line' with LNG

EVERETT -- Shelia Pierce has not heard of the US Department of Homeland Security and does not know what an orange alert means. She just knows it sounds "like trouble," and wonders whether the tanker that shows up every seven days a couple of hundredyards from her house with 35 million gallons of liquefied natural gas is in the sights of a terrorist's weapon.

 

"Hopefully I will be out of here by summer," she said, sketching out a future for herself and three teenage daughters that does not include living near LNG tanks or any flammable gas. "Right now with the high alert you take it day by day."

As Governor Mitt Romney and Mayor Thomas M. Menino huddled with Coast Guard officials and the State Police last week, temporarily delaying the Distrigas LNG tanker in Boston Harbor, some residents in this neighborhood called "the line" did their own soul searching and wondered just how much longer they could continue living in the shadow of one of the largest natural gas distribution centers in New England.

Down the line, the small strip of land that runs parallel with Route 99 before being swallowed up by the Mystic River, people, electricity, and petroleum have coexisted warily for years. The name, perhaps a nod to the nearby Charlestown border, was coined about 100 years ago when Italian imigrants put down roots. It took on a new meaning as fuel and power companies built pipelines there. Like most of Everett, the line is densely packed, with pastel-sided apartment buildings sharing tenuous turf with auto body shops, trucking terminals, factories, and warehouses. Madonnas and bird baths stand opposite some Santa Claus balloons that sway and wave; a garden leads to empty lots and cinderblock sheds; old supermarket carts rest against a chainlink fence.

The line's chief industry lies beyond two cracked concrete walls that rise above Robin Street and stretch for one-third of a mile between Rover and Beacham streets. Behind the barriers are two 12-story, double-hulled Distrigas tanks that hold 42 million gallons of LNG -- more than enough to heat 30,000 homes for a year.

After being pumped from one of the 950-foot, double-hulled tankers that arrive every week, the LNG is held in the tanks before being vaporized and converted to natural gas, which is distributed by two interstate pipelines to gas companies throughout New England. The facility supplies about 20 percent of the natural gas consumed in New England.

Distrigas also feeds natural gas to the Exelon Mystic generating station nearby, a 1,600-megawatt station on the Mystic River that is the largest natural gas power plant in New England.

At the opposite end of Broadway, ExxonMobil operates an independent storage facility, with 28 tanks, capable of holding 15 million gallons of gasoline and petroleum. From there, gas is pumped to trucks and driven to gas stations and suppliers.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, security around the plants was not a topic of dinner-table conversation for residents of the line. Few noticed that just one Coast Guard boat escorted the LNG tankers into the harbor. Now, according to Coast Guard Captain Brian Salerno, who oversees security at the port of Boston, the tankers are boarded by Coast Guard officers at Broad Sound and are accompanied by Coast Guard, State Police, and Massachusetts Environmental Police boats into the harbor. Aerial traffic ceases overhead and inner-harbor vessels are prohibited from moving. Massport halts traffic on the Tobin Bridge and a State Police helicopter patrols above. Then the tanker is turned around by tugboats and towed the final one-half mile to its Everett docking station.

Even with this intense security -- which brought over 40 federal, state and local law enforcement authorities to the waters of Everett last Wednesday -- not everyone is convinced that the system is safe. Leading the charge has been Menino, who unsuccessfully tried to prevent the LNG tankers from returning after Sept. 11. "Mayor Menino has repeatedly described the consequences of LNG as very grave and very serious," said Seth Gitell, a mayoral spokesman.

Vitek countered that LNG is a safe and important source of energy. "Given the characteristics of LNG and the exceptionally robust construction of the ships and storage tanks, we firmly believe that LNG is as safe, if not safer to transport, and store than most other liquid fuels," said Vitek.

Everett's police and fire departments have also stepped up security around the line. Last year, the police department created a marine division and used a $150,000 federal grant to purchase a 25-foot boat to patrol Everett's waterfront. Also, Everett -- along with Revere, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Malden -- received a $1.96 million federal grant this year for shared protective gear and equipment and will receive part of a $16.7 million homeland security grant for Boston-area cities promised by the Bush administration in May.

Even with the new money on the way, slip-ups still occur. Last week, Everett Fire Chief David Butlerfound out about the tanker by reading the newspaper. "Do I think we should have been consulted? Probably. It's something we plan to address," said Butler.

At the end of the line on Bow Street, Richard Brandano shrugged when asked about homeland security and pointed to the six closed-circuit television cameras he installed on his house two months after Sept. 11. His house overlooks the dozens of white, rust-stained ExxonMobil tanks.

"They stepped up the patrol around these tanks, and you'd always see things going on in the nighttime. Instead of me running and looking out the window, now I can see if it's security or if someone busted in there or whatever," Brandano said, leading a visitor to his den, where a control panel lets him remotely operate the cameras, which have infrared capability.

Brandano, a 47-year-old contractor, loves the line. He takes pride in his part in restoring land across from his house that was dedicated as Thomas Langone Square, in honor of a 20-year-old Everett man who died in 1945 at Iwo Jima.

But even the lure of this new memorial, with its fruit trees and freshly cut grass is not strong enough to keep him. "It's a dirty, tough, smelly part of town," he said. Like Pierce, he plans to move. "I tell my wife and my family that I've been looking at property in Lynnfield. Of course it's much more money than I have to spend but it makes you wonder what you're still doing in this area."

Further up Bow Street, at Angelo's Barber Shop in the heart of the line, Jack Cleary stood in the barber shop where he has cut hair for the last 10 years and talked about the plant with Kevin Hurley, who has been coming in every two weeks for a trim for as long as both men can remember. They make dark jokes about the LNG plant.

"The place is a natural target," said Cleary. "Something will happen, eventually. It will take time, but what are you going to do?"

"All they need is three rockets," said Hurley.

"You've got to have terrorist insurance," said Cleary.

"I don't care, I won't be here," said Hurley.

But on Robin Street, where 18-wheelers rumble over potholes, one of the line's oldest residents insisted she would never leave. "They have more security down there. I'm content. I'm not fearful," said Louise Boever, who still lives in the house where she was born 76 years ago.

Rather than the government alerts, it's the gradual disappearance of homes in the neighborhood that concerns her. "Once the homes are gone from here that's going to be it, because we're zoned for industry," she said.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com. Globe staff reporter Brenda Buote contributed to this article.

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