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An LNG tanker passed by condominiums in Charlestown on its way out of Boston Harbor. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has declared the LNG shipments too dangerous to continue.
An LNG tanker passed by condominiums in Charlestown on its way out of Boston Harbor. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has declared the LNG shipments too dangerous to continue. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Study spells out high toll on city in LNG attack

WASHINGTON -- A terrorist attack on a liquefied natural gas tanker would cause ''major injuries and significant damage to structures" a third of a mile away and could cause second-degree burns on people more than a mile away, according to the most detailed study yet of the ramifications of an LNG disaster.

The study, commissioned by the Department of Energy to resolve differences between earlier studies, indicates that a successful attack on a tanker -- via methods such as internal sabotage, a rocket-propelled grenade, a kamikaze flight, or a USS Cole-style suicide boat ramming -- would create a profound security threat to Boston.

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: Areas at risk

The LNG tankers that service the Distrigas facility in Everett pass within a few hundred yards of the urban core's densely populated shoreline -- placing residents well within the highest risk zone. The ships cross through Boston Harbor under extremely tight security, with flights suspended overhead, but officials including Mayor Thomas M. Menino have declared the LNG shipments too dangerous to continue.

The 166-page study, conducted by Sandia National Laboratories over the past year, represents the most definitive assessment of LNG tanker risks to date and is intended to be used as a basis for all government policies about LNG siting and security going forward. The investigators used new and more sophisticated computer models to analyze new and existing data to reach their conclusions.

Captain David Scott, the director of operations and environmental standards at the US Coast Guard, said the government viewed the Sandia study as ''the most objective" yet.

''The Coast Guard considers the Sandia report as a document with great credibility," Scott said. ''Some of the previous studies had a preconceived conception and . . . may have been advocates for the industry or those who have opposed it."

The report seemed likely to rekindle public debate over the presence of the LNG terminal near Boston Harbor. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guard shut the harbor to LNG tankers. Menino sued to prevent the return of tankers, but lost.

Earlier this year, former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke revealed that intelligence analysts believed Al Qaeda operatives had entered the country in the years before the attacks by stowing away on LNG tankers in Algeria and jumping ship in Boston. The tankers no longer dock in Algeria.

In assessing possible terrorist dangers, Sandia also produced a classified companion report, which contains information about the exact methods that could cause maximum damage. It also offers suggestions about security measures to reduce that risk.

But the public report, which is to be posted on the Internet at 9 a.m. today at fossil.energy.gov, is rich with information about what would happen in an accidental or intentional spill of LNG over water, a scenario that had not been as thoroughly studied as a problem distinct from a spill on land.

According to a congressional aide who was briefed on the report, the study concluded that attacks on an LNG vessel would create a rupture of between 6 and 39 feet. It used a 16-foot hole as a standard measure.

The study said a spill from a 16-foot hole, if ignited, would create a thermal blast that would set buildings on fire and melt steel out to 1,281 feet and give people second-degree burns up to 4,282 feet away. A 39-foot rupture would burn buildings out to 1,975 feet and burn people up to 6,299 feet away -- well over a mile. The worst-case scenario measured by the report was three 16-foot holes. That would set structures aflame out to 2,067 feet and burn people as far as 6,949 feet away.

The study also determined that a pool of LNG released into the water and then ignited as it vaporized would create a giant fireball that would expand outward to a distance twice the size of the pool itself. It studied pools of between 686 and 1,877 feet.

The congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the report also cites the chance that a fire in one of the vessel's multiple tanks could cause nearby tanks to break down, causing additional fireballs.

The study, however, notes that its conclusions are based on computer simulations. Because there has not been a major LNG accident involving a modern tanker, there is no data from an actual spill of the supercooled liquid gas.

Julie Vitek, a spokeswoman for Distrigas, said the company wanted to read the Sandia report before it would comment on its specific findings, but said that the LNG supplies are critical to New England. The Everett facility, she said, is now delivering enough natural gas to heat more than a half-million homes every day.

Vitek also said that Distrigas and the LNG industry have an excellent safety record.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for Menino, said the mayor planned to study the report.

''Mayor Menino has long said that LNG entry into Boston Harbor is a profound danger and that the consequences of LNG ignition would be catastrophic," Gitell said.

US Representative Edward J. Markey, the Malden Democrat whose district includes Everett, was briefed on the report yesterday. He called the information ''sobering," noting that it considered some factors, such as wave and smoke effects, more seriously than earlier studies. Markey also said it was further evidence that no LNG terminals should be built near heavily populated areas.

But unlike Menino, Markey stopped short of calling for the Everett terminal to be closed, citing New England's dependence on natural gas supplies. The problem requires a long-term solution, such as building a new terminal out in the ocean and piping the fuel in as a safer gas form, he said.

The report does not present an evaluation of the chances a terrorist attack would be successful, given the security precautions taken by the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies and the double hulls used by LNG tankers.

In Boston, flights are halted while a ship moves through the harbor, as is traffic on the Tobin Bridge. The Coast Guard boards the vessels and escorts them in, not allowing other ships to come near. Local law enforcement and emergency responders are given advance notice to coordinate their own stepped-up patrols and preparations. 

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