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Menino urges more study of LNG risk

Industry officials say shipments safe

Likening liquified natural gas tankers in Boston harbor to "Russian roulette," Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday called for closer study of the risks of an explosion in the event of a terrorist attack.

"We are very concerned," Menino said at a press conference. "Are we ready? I think we made some gains, but what would happen if the tanker is hit in the harbor? The cloud comes out that would spread right into downtown Boston."

Menino, who has fought LNG shipments through the harbor since the World Trade Center attacks, renewed his public fight to end them after the Boston Herald reported that a new paper by senior scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that an LNG fire would "burn quicker, cleaner and with a considerably more thermal radiation than a comparable volume of fuel oil."

Gas company officials reacted strongly to the doubts about safety.

In an interview, Richard Grant, the chief executive officer of Tractebel/Distrigas, which imports gas for storage and distribution from its tank facilities on the Mystic River in Everett, said two major studies have found that LNG tankers in Boston harbor represent a reasonable risk.

"We are very confident that LNG tankers can transit Boston Harbor safely," he said, noting that each tanker is escorted into the harbor by numerous Coast Guard and police vessels.

"The results of the study we commissioned to examine the consequences of a deliberate attack on a fully loaded tanker indicate the amount of explosives needed to breach just one-fifth of the cargo is so large and so conspicuous that it could not be carried in a small boat or by a person," he said.

City officials also faulted Tractebel/Distrigas for not supplying them with all the information they requested.

Boston Fire Chief Jay Fleming said in an interview that he repeatedly asked Tractebel/Distrigas for technical information on the estimated size of a fire in the event of an attack so he could devise a practice exercise for fire, police, and other emergency personnel. But he said Tractebel/Distrigas refused to do so.

Two or three months ago, Fleming made his own estimate, and sent his draft estimate to Tractebel/Distrigas and the Coast Guard with a request for comment, he said. "They never got back to me," he said.

But Julie Vitek, Tractebel/Distrigas spokeswoman, said company officials have had "numerous meetings" with city authorities and denied the company has withheld any information the city has requested.

"We have tried to work with the city in a productive manner at all times," she said. "We have had some give and take over the years."

The exchange between city officials and Tractebel/Distrigas is a renewal of longstanding mistrust. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, LNG tankers were temporarily halted from Boston harbor. Menino sued in federal court to keep the tankers from resuming their weekly voyages into the harbor, but lost.

Since then, tankers continue to make deliveries under high security. And the debate over the safety of tankers in a channel of water so close to a densely populated urban area has become a battle of consultants and scientists.

James A. Fay, a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, has maintained for more than 20 years that an attack on a tanker in Boston harbor would result in a fire "unlike anything we have ever seen."

Fay, in an interview, said the heat from such a fire would burn the skin of people in the North End, East Boston, and surrounding neighborhoods, and would ignite wooden structures on the shores.

After Sept. 11, Tractebel/Distrigas commissioned Lloyds Register of Shipping in Europe to study the risk.

While Tractebel/Distrigas says it will not publicly release the study due to security concerns, the company says it showed Fay's estimates of damage as grossly exaggerated.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, relied on a second study, commissioned by the federal Department of Engery, that likewise backed the safe use of LNG in Boston harbor.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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