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In study of terror risk against LNG ships, inferno is major fear

The Berge Boston entering Boston Harbor. It is one of several tankers that supply liquefied natural gas to New England. (David Ryan/Boston Globe/File 2006)

WASHINGTON -- Fire from a terrorism attack against a tanker ship carrying liquefied natural gas could ignite so fiercely it would burn people up to a mile away, according to a congressional study.

It examined terror risks on the nation's waterways and concluded that further research is needed to understand the consequences of such a horrific inferno.

The study by the Government Accountability Office was expected to be released today. It urged the Energy Department to perform new research on the risks from a major fire or gas release in terrorist attacks or natural disasters on such tanker ships.

Tankers carrying liquefied natural gas regularly pass through Boston Harbor, as close as 1,000 feet from some homes and businesses, to the Distrigas LNG terminal in Everett. That terminal is home to two LNG storage tanks whose capacity meets about 20 percent of New England's annual gas demand.

In Fall River, Weaver's Cove Energy and Hess LNG have proposed a terminal despite opposition from local and state officials in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Critics say almost 64,000 people in Rhode Island and Massachusetts live along the proposed tanker route.

Lawmakers said the latest GAO study coincides with projected increases of 400 percent in liquefied natural gas imports over the next 10 years, as energy companies await federal approval on 32 applications to build new terminals in 10 states and five offshore areas. New tanker ships being launched are nearly twice as large as many current tankers, lawmakers said.

"Although LNG tankers have not been subject to a catastrophic accident or attack, we need to ensure regulators are making decisions with a large enough margin of safety to account for the threats in a post-9/11 environment," said Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. His committee plans oversight hearings on the subject.

Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, said such natural gas shipments have an excellent safety record. He noted tankers have operated nearly 50 years without a major spill, and said mandatory "protection zones" around such tankers are believed to be adequate. Still, he described further research on the risks as "only prudent."

The GAO report examined six unclassified studies about the effects of a spill and fire aboard a double-hulled tanker carrying liquefied natural gas. Congressional investigators said most analysts believe fierce heat from the intense fire -- not explosions -- is likely the biggest threat to citizens.

Most of those interviewed by investigators agreed such a fire could burn people's skin roughly mile away, depending on variables that include the amount of gas released, size of the tanker breach, and winds, the GAO report said.

A half-dozen LNG facilities have been proposed in the Northeast, often in urban areas.