June 26, 2008

Again, Legislators Say LNG Plan is Ill-Conceived

By Alex Kuffner

A second meeting with federal regulators draws 300 people evenly split between opponents and supporters.

SWANSEA -- It was a different night but the message was nearly identical.

Last night, during the second public hearing on a proposed floating liquefied natural gas terminal in Mount Hope Bay, state and local officials from Rhode Island and Massachusetts told federal regulators that the project is ill-conceived, would harm the environment and could pose a serious safety hazard.

And they questioned how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could even give consideration to the proposal, the latest incarnation of Weaver's Cove Energy's plan to ship LNG to the area.

"I am deeply, deeply disappointed at the latitude FERC has granted to this company as it continues to try and ram this down our throats," said Massachusetts state Rep. Patricia Haddad, whose district includes Swansea and Somerset.

About 300 people came to the hearing at the Venus de Milo restaurant, in Swansea, a significant increase over the 80 or so who were at the hearing in Bristol on a stormy night Tuesday.

The crowd in Swansea was more evenly split between opponents and supporters of the controversial plan.

Before the hearing began, members of the Coalition for Responsible Siting of LNG Facilities, a group that is against the project, picketed outside the restaurant in bright orange T-shirts that read, "I am not an acceptable risk." Inside, dozens of members of the Massachusetts pipefitters and carpenters unions sat together wearing white Weaver's Cove baseball caps.

The line of elected officials who testified at the start of the meeting, however, was not divided. Each and every one of the nine officials or their representatives raised serious questions about the plan to build a 1,200-foot-long berth in the middle of Mount Hope Bay, about a mile from the closest shoreline. Tankers would dock there and unload LNG, which would be piped to a re- gasification plant that would be built in Fall River's north end.

The 4.25-mile pipeline to the plant would be buried in a trench at the bottom of Mount Hope Bay and the Taunton River.

The offshore facility was put on the table after the company's original plan -- to build a $250-million marine terminal in Fall River's north end -- encountered a series of obstacles.

The company had planned to bring supertankers through Narragansett and Mount Hope bays and up the Taunton River, to unload them in Fall River.

It received FERC approval for the project in 2005, but last August, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management denied an application to dredge a portion of Mount Hope Bay to clear the way for the 950-foot tankers.

And in October, the Coast Guard ruled that not even smaller tankers could safely navigate under the Brightman Street Bridge and its replacement span, now under construction between Somerset and Fall River.

Tankers wouldn't need to travel under the bridges to reach the floating terminal because it would be located downstream in Somerset waters, about a mile southwest of Brayton Point.

But members of the Somerset Board of Selectmen have said there is no way they will support the proposal.

Selectman Lorne Lawless reiterated that position last night, detailing a host of concerns that focused on safety and security. He cited the Coast Guard's ruling last year, reading a portion of the decision that raised issues about whether supertankers could safely navigate through Narragansett and Mount Hope bays.

Lawless also brought up the specter of a potential terrorist attack that could lead to a devastating fire.

"It could take out ... all our coastline," he said.

Officials are working to block the proposal. Rhode Island state Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr., D-Bristol, Portsmouth, has sponsored a bill, approved by both the House and Senate, which would require a slew of additional approvals for any emergency response plan developed for the transportation of LNG through Rhode Island waters.

The legislation, which is set to be submitted to the governor's office for approval, would give all Rhode Island cities and towns on Narragansett and Mount Hope bays authority over the emergency response plan being developed by the state Emergency Management Agency. The legislation would give each community veto power over the safety plan. Without such a plan, tankers would not be able to come into state waters, according to Gallison.

In Massachusetts, Congressmen Barney Frank and James P. McGovern are attempting to have the Taunton River designated a Wild and Scenic River. If the river is given the federal designation, it would be protected from the sort of dredging Weaver's Cove would need to lay its pipeline.

Patrick Norton, a representative of McGovern's office, left no doubt what that would mean.

"If there can't be any dredging done, the project can't move forward," he said.

Swansea [email protected] / (401) 277-7457

Originally published by Alex Kuffner, Journal Staff Writer.

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