Mayor seeks to block tankers

Wants Yemen gas delivery offshore

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / January 1, 2010

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Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday he will ask Boston’s lawyers to see whether the city can block Yemeni tankers from delivering liquefied natural gas into Boston Harbor, calling such deliveries “wrong.’’

“We’re in extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of our city,’’ the mayor said in an interview. “They cannot be coming into a harbor like Boston, where there is less than 50 feet between the tankers and residential areas.’’

Menino and several other public officials said they would press for the tankers’ cargo - destined for an LNG terminal in Everett as soon as next month - to instead be unloaded away from the city, in light of the failed Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man, who trained in Yemen, to blow up a US airliner over Detroit.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who had called the plan to bring in the tankers “a matter of grave concern,’’ said yesterday he would contact the state’s top public safety official - Kevin M. Burke, the secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety - to look for ways to halt the deliveries.

The Globe reported yesterday that shipments of liquefied natural gas from Yemen are scheduled to arrive for the first time in Boston as early as February. Coast Guard officials are reviewing the plan and said yesterday they have not yet decided whether the shipments will be allowed to enter the harbor and dock at the LNG terminal in Everett.

“Their paramount concern is the safety and security of the Port of Boston,’’ Coast Guard spokesman Jeff Hall said of the security team reviewing the plans.

Concerns among Menino and other local officials have intensified since the failed plot last week, which renewed fears that Yemen has become a haven and training ground for extremists.

“They need to seriously look at offloading those ships in the outer harbor,’’ said John Leo McKinnon, an Everett city councilor and chairman of the city’s public safety committee. “If we’re going to be taking in ships from Yemen, a known terror site, we have to make sure people feel comfortable.’’

In addition to the Christmas Day episode, McKinnon cited the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the southern Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen American sailors were killed in that attack.

“These two incidents should make people more edgy,’’ he said.

And state Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, Democrat of Chelsea, reiterated his past calls for an offshore facility. But he said he recognizes the importance of the Everett plant, which “is necessary for the economy.’’

“Where it’s located is a potential disaster for the city of Boston and surrounding communities,’’ he said. “It’s something that should be brought to everybody’s attention.’’

The local officials suggested that the gas be unloaded in the outer harbor, either on a facility built in the water or on one of the harbor islands. Both possibilities have been discussed in the past, when the potential threat of LNG tankers was first raised several years ago, but were eventually dropped.

Past studies have concluded that a liquefied natural gas leak in Boston Harbor could catch fire and even explode, threatening people more than three-quarters of a mile away.

Officials for DistriGas, the company responsible for the shipments, have taken issue with some of those assertions about risk. A 2004 study commissioned by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was based on dangerously flawed assumptions, and its recommendations were “scientifically unsupported and premature,’’ Francis J. Katulak, DistriGas’s senior vice president for operations, told the federal agency at the time. Thus, he said, it was impossible to know the real hazards of a potential liquefied natural gas release from a tanker.

In the most recent debate about safety, attention has focused on the use of an offshore facility to unload the tankers, far away from Boston neighborhoods. There is an offshore natural gas facility in Gloucester and another is scheduled to begin operating soon, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

But those plants operate differently from the Everett facility run by Distrigas of Massachusetts, said Carol Churchill, a company spokeswoman. While the offshore facilities vaporize the gas and inject it directly into pipelines, the Everett plant unloads the gas in liquid form and stores it in tanks. It then distributes the gas as needed, supplying 20 percent of the natural gas used in New England - or more on a cold day, Churchill said.

If the gas now delivered in liquid form was instead vaporized, the pipelines could not hold it all, she said.

“We appreciate the suggestion that this might be possible,’’ Churchill said. “New England needs this natural gas. The constraints of the pipeline system that exists are what make the Everett facility so critical.’’

She said the company is doing everything possible to make sure the shipments from Yemen pose no risk to the residents of Boston and the surrounding communities.

“The only thing that has changed is the country of origin,’’ she said. “The ships are the same we’ve used in the past. The crews and officers are going to be similar to the ones we’ve used in the past. And there will be additional safety checks between the time the ships leave Yemen and arrive in Everett. We have an excellent safety record and we intend to maintain that excellent safety record in years to come.’’

Shipments currently come from Trinidad and Egypt. In the past, they have originated in Abu Dhabi, Australia, and Algeria. She said the company contracted with YLNG, a Yemeni company, which built a state-of-the-art facility in Balhaf, Yemen.

But Yemen is facing renewed scrutiny from US counter-terrorism officials. Some say LNG tankers from the country are especially worrying because of a 2004 memoir by former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who wrote that officials had “learned that Al Qaeda operatives had been infiltrating Boston by coming in on liquid natural gas tankers from Algeria.’’

Burke, the state’s public safety secretary, said yesterday that next week he will arrange for DeLeo to receive “a full security briefing’’ from the Coast Guard.

“The main monitor will continue to be the Coast Guard,’’ said Burke, who has said he has expressed his concerns about the dangerous cargo to the Coast Guard’s captain of the port. “He has been very clear about how important safety is to him. He is not going to take any risk.’’