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Coast Guard blocks Fall River LNG terminal

Span was factor in ruling; developer plans an appeal

The old Brightman Street drawbridge was not big enough for large ships to pass through. The Coast Guard ruled that the Taunton River was unsafe for frequent trips by LNG tankers. The old Brightman Street drawbridge was not big enough for large ships to pass through. The Coast Guard ruled that the Taunton River was unsafe for frequent trips by LNG tankers. (Vincent DeWitt for the Boston Globe/file)

A proposed liquefied natural gas terminal that had incited public fears about an explosive accident or terrorist attack on Fall River's waterfront was blocked yesterday by the US Coast Guard, which ruled that the Taunton River is unsafe for frequent trips by LNG tankers.

Barring a successful appeal by Weaver's Cove Energy, the decision appeared to bring to a close a tumultuous chapter in Fall River, whose residents and political leaders had waged an aggressive campaign against a project they regarded as a dangerous intruder on their shores. The city's two congressmen aided the cause by getting federal legislation passed that prevented the long-planned demolition of the structurally deficient, 101-year-old Brightman Street drawbridge, which is not large enough for the large ships to pass through.

"That bridge may be responsible for saving the city of Fall River from this horrible fate of having an LNG facility planted right in the middle of it," said US Representative James P. McGovern. "That bridge deserves a lot of credit."

After the congressional vote, Weaver's Cove Energy proposed circumventing the bridge problem by using smaller vessels, roughly 750 feet long and 85 feet wide, to make deliveries twice as often, up to three times a week. But the drawbridge is only 98 feet wide.

In a 37-page report, the Coast Guard pointed out that the old bridge and a new span, current ly under construction, are just 1,100 feet apart and that the ship passages are not aligned. The new bridge was originally designed to replace the drawbridge, but mariners will have to navigate both. To get through safely, a ship would need to slow to nearly a halt and either be towed or move laterally 100 feet. While other commercial ships now make the trip, the vessels that Weaver's Cove proposed were bigger and would make more frequent trips. In addition, the coal ships currently traveling up the river require no security zone, as LNG tankers do, the report states.

"Certainly there are competent mariners out there who can make this go right 10 times, 100 times," Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Benson of the Coast Guard said in an interview. "But it needs to go right every time."

The narrow confines of the river also would prevent tankers from turning around in the event of an accident, the Coast Guard ruled. "In short, once a northbound LNG tanker enters the federal channel in this segment, they are committed to completing the entire transit - there is no feasible alternative," US Coast Guard Captain Roy A. Nash wrote in his report deeming the river unsuitable for an LNG terminal.

While Weaver's Cove has assured that the terminal would not pose a danger, the fear of the unknown post-Sept. 11, 2001, has led many to consider whether LNG tankers so close to shore could pose an attractive target for a terrorist attack. The governor's office said yesterday that the tankers would have traveled near a densely populated urban area and within 33 yards of two heavily traveled bridges and the Battleship Cove floating naval museum.

In recent years, Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston has railed against the dangers at a similar LNG terminal in Everett, where nearly weekly deliveries through Boston Harbor draw a thick security contingent of helicopters, the Coast Guard, and State Police. Everett is one of four LNG terminals along the East Coast. Two additional facilities are being built offshore north of Boston.

Yesterday's ruling represented the Coast Guard's final word on the project, though Weaver's Cove can appeal to the Coast Guard for reconsideration, an action the developer immediately vowed to take, saying that the recommendation "lacks the necessary factual support."

"The decision disregards critical facts in the record and introduces both new data and new concerns on which Weaver's Cove Energy was not provided an opportunity to comment," said a statement by the company, a subsidiary of Hess LNG.

The project has been opposed by many local residents, politicians, and officials, who feared that frequent LNG deliveries along the densely populated waterfront would be a burden on emergency management and public safety agencies. Governor Deval Patrick praised the Coast Guard's decision.

"We are grateful for the Coast Guard's independent and objective assessment of the security and safety risks involved with the Weaver's Cove LNG project," Patrick said in a written statement. "I am pleased that the Coast Guard's concerns, like ours, were about site suitability and security."

In 2003, Weaver's Cove Energy proposed to build an LNG storage tank, a new pier, processing equipment, and several support buildings at a former Shell Oil terminal in Fall River. The proposed terminal would unload LNG from tankers from overseas and include a new pipeline to ship gas to an interstate system.

Two years later, the project easily won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which declined to reconsider its decision even after Congress preserved the Brightman Street Bridge, complicating the anticipated route for the LNG tankers. The attorneys general of Massachusetts and Rhode Island joined Fall River in challenging the commission's decision in a case that is still pending before the First Circuit Court. That case argues that the commission should have reopened the proceedings after the bridge was preserved and that it improperly rejected alternative sites, among other issues.

The commission's approval was contingent upon the sign-off by of the Coast Guard.

The news that the Coast Guard had rejected the project seemed like a parting gift to Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr., who is leaving the Fall River post this week for a job at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and who made the LNG battle a cornerstone of his last years in office.

"It's very nice; I don't think they planned it that way," Lambert said jokingly of the Coast Guard's timing. "I think the whole community here is in a celebratory mood, although we recognize it's not over till it's over."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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