Voices | Sam Allis

To Plan B, or not to Plan B?

What would happen if an LNG tanker is blocked from Boston Harbor due to security concerns?

By Sam Allis
February 8, 2010

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I don’t know about you, but I can count the cracks in the ceiling at 2 a.m. over a hangnail. A frozen drain spout, a run on Skippy Extra Crunchy - these things paralyze me.

The future is a ruinous place to venture, so I try to stay away from it. This means I need to confect a daily Plan B, because you never know when someone might tap you on the shoulder and tell you to clear your desk by 3. Most of us don’t get near a Plan B because the mere thought of it - bagging groceries at Roche Bros., for one - is so scary. Even though our Plan A is nothing to write home about.

Take the emergency evacuation routes out of Boston in case of - you pick it - a dirty bomb, a towering inferno. From my traffic experience on the roads of Boston, I wouldn’t make it to Melnea Cass Boulevard from my home in Jamaica Plain. And that’s Plan A.

There is no Plan B. You either have a helipad in your backyard or you descend with your loved ones to the cellar where you all go out together holding hands while listening to the Mahler Adagietto.

I choose to blot such thoughts from my mind. I have smaller things to worry about. But now there’s a delicious new nightmare for me to feast on - the threat of a Yemeni liquefied natural gas tanker igniting in the middle of Boston Harbor as a result of a terrorist act.

Mayor Tom Menino doesn’t want a Yemeni tanker in Boston Harbor. Distrigas of Massachusetts, the outfit that brings LNG into our midst, insists on doing so. This saga is convoluted enough to trigger instant coma, so let’s move briskly here.

My first question is, could a conflagration reach JP? No. So who does get vaporized? No one really knows how far the fire zone would extend, but a lot of people would die.

I’m not that concerned about a terrorist attack on an LNG tanker, because all the smarties agree that sooner or later it’s going to happen. That’s simply too big for me to worry about.

What does worry me is this: Suppose the Coast Guard blocks a Yemeni tanker from entering Boston Harbor for valid security concerns. What’s the Plan B to keep gas coming into port to keep us warm in arctic winters like this one? How, in short, does Boston not become the Hub of the Frozen Cadavers?

Here’s the bad news: There is no Plan B. There’s no Santa Claus, no Wizard of Oz, and no Plan B. Nobody - not City Hall, not Distrigas, not the US Coast Guard - has a Plan B for that event. Now that’s something I can sink my teeth into.

“That’s a question for the company,’’ Menino tells me about Distrigas when I asked him about a Plan B. “We’ve pressed them, and we have no answer.’’

Adds Don McGough, Menino’s head of Emergency Preparedness, “That’s a valid question. Distrigas is in a state of denial. We don’t think there is a good enough Plan B.’’

The Coast Guard, for its part, doesn’t have a dog in this fight, because its primary charge is to provide security for the LNG tankers. Its plan has been briefed up to the Department of Homeland Security and back again.

So all eyes move to Distrigas chief executive Frank Katulak, who is losing zero sleep over the situation. Does he have a Plan B, a written protocol ready to be implemented if necessary?

“No. We don’t, ’’ he says. “I don’t know what to say. We don’t. It’s in our heads.’’


If a Yemeni LNG tanker were stopped, says Katulak, Distrigas would scramble to get another of its tankers from somewhere in the world to hightail it to Boston. That’s it.

Along about now, I wipe my fevered brow and wonder what I’m supposed to do with all this. Am I to hope not only that a terrorist does not ignite a tanker in the harbor but also that the Coast Guard never stops one beyond the harbor in the first place?

As my daughter used to say, “I don’t like this.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at