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Union criticizes Menino on LNG preparedness

But official says city is ready as possible

Email|Print| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / February 17, 2008

The Boston Firefighters Union yesterday seized on a recent mishap involving a liquefied natural gas tanker to blast Mayor Thomas M. Menino for what firefighters called the city's failure to create a response plan for a potential tanker accident or attack in Boston Harbor.

But Boston's director of emergency preparedness said officials have worked with the Coast Guard to make sure the city is "as prepared as possible" to mitigate the risks of LNG transport, while a specialist on the risks posed by LNG tankers said the city's ability to respond to an incident would be limited anyway.

A 933-foot tanker en route from Trinidad and Tobago to Everett's LNG facility had a power failure about 35 miles off the coast of Chatham early Monday morning and had to be secured by tug boats to prevent it from drifting into Georges Bank off Cape Cod.

"That should have been a wake-up call, a call to action," said Edward Kelly, president of Local 718, which is in the midst of stalled contract negotiations with the city. "It caused massive safety concerns."

The union contended yesterday that the city has failed to create a detailed response plan, provide proper equipment, or train firefighters to respond in the event of a tanker explosion and resulting fireball in Boston Harbor, which specialists say could incinerate harborside areas and kill thousands of people.

Menino has consistently called for halting LNG shipments through Boston Harbor, saying the LNG should be unloaded at offshore terminals rather than transported along densely populated shores to onshore terminals. At the same time, the city has worked to ensure the shipments are transported safely, officials said.

"The City of Boston and its public safety agencies have worked closely with the United States Coast Guard, the lead agency in charge of port security, and other port stakeholders on the development of a comprehensive security and safety plan," Donald McGough, director of the mayor's office of emergency preparedness, said in a statement yesterday.

The Coast Guard said the public was never endangered by the disabled tanker, the Catalunya Spirit. The repairs were completed Saturday night while under federal inspection at the site of a future offshore LNG terminal about 10 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.

A spokeswoman for Suez Distrigas, which runs the Everett terminal, said the company rushed another LNG tanker to Everett to compensate for the undelivered cargo on the disabled vessel. She said the company would meet with the Coast Guard later this week to determine whether the first tanker will proceed to Everett with its shipment.

James Fay, an MIT professor who has long criticized the passage of LNG tankers through Boston Harbor, said the city is rightly focused on ensuring shipments are secured, rather than on responding in the event of a disaster.

"It's useless to try to fight the fire from an LNG tanker," Fay said. "The fires from a tanker, while they would be very large, don't last very long, and so there's not much opportunity to evacuate people before the fire is over. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes and all the spilled LNG is used up.

"Hiring more firemen or getting more equipment doesn't help this because the equipment can't be used to help put out the fire. It would be a very bad incident if it happened, and there's not much that the city can do."

Kelly said after the press conference in East Boston that the union wants the city to have a specialist conduct a professional disaster analysis plan to determine what resources the city needs.

The union's press conference was its latest salvo directed at city administration. The city's firefighters have been working without a contract for more than 18 months.

On Feb. 6, union representatives met with members of Boston City Council to outline a laundry list of complaints, including media accounts of alleged wrongdoing in the department and what they called the city's failure to provide firefighters with adequate resources.

Menino aides say the key point of contention in contract negotiations is over-requiring firefighters to undergo random drug and alcohol testing.

The union's public complaints about the mayor are intended to distract from that issue, the aides say.

Kelly yesterday rejected that criticism, saying the union has a responsibility to hold politicians accountable for public safety in the city.

The state's Joint Labor-Management Committee for Municipal and Fire has agreed to mediate in the contract negotiations.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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