Terrorist assaults on tankers transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) into U.S. ports would likely produce thermal hazards for people who are located a mile away from the site, along with extensive injuries and structural damage from the scorching heat, a new study by government scientists reported last week.

In a worst-case scenario, the Department of Energy-commission study concluded that “we could see a radius of up to 630 square meters [a third of a mile] subject to levels of heat and fire that would burn buildings [and] damage steel tanks and machinery, while a radius of up to 2,118 square meters [more than a mile] could be exposed to levels of heat that would cause second-degree burns (blistering) within 30 seconds,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA). The study, which was conducted by Sandia National Laboratories of Albuquerque, NM, said terrorists have a wide arsenal at their disposal to disable LNG tankers.

The study is the first federally funded study to take a look at the full consequences of terrorist attacks on an LNG carrier vessels, and includes in its models of plausible consequences actual information from the intelligence community. Sandia acknowledged that information about LNG tanker accidents was scarce, given the industry’s “exemplary safety record, with only eight accidents over the past 40 years.” The majority of the incidents involved tanker groundings. There have been no fatalities.

With the nation thirsty for more natural gas, top government leaders are exploring ways to import LNG into the country safely. The push by energy companies to erect LNG terminals is being met with strong resistance from environmentalists and local communities, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Most opponents cite the safety and security concerns of having an LNG facility located in their community.

The results of a federal study assessing the risks of LNG are “very sobering and…should give everyone reason to make certain that we do not build new LNG facilities in or near a densely populated area,” said Markey, a long-time critic of the government’s siting policies for LNG facilities and its safety/security practices.

The Sandia report exposes “serious weaknesses in the way we build these vessels and immense challenges to the public safety community who are tasked with protecting these ships and the terminals they service,” said Markey, who is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee. He also represents the district where the only urban LNG import terminal in the United States is located.

“Previous studies have assumed that an intentional attack on a loaded LNG tanker might open up a hole no larger than a meter. But Sandia says the intentional hole size ranges up to 12 meters (over 29 feet), with a five-meter hole being their nominal case,” he said. In addition, the study finds that threats could include “‘multiple events and multiple containers damaged,’ which means that even an attack that causes a five-meter hole could lead to a cascade of events that breaches three containers on the ship.”

Most terrorist-inflicted damage to LNG tankers would produce an ignition source and an LNG fire is very likely to occur, along with vapor cloud dispersion, the Sandia study noted.

The study’s assumptions “vastly increase the estimated consequences of damage” to neighboring facilities and communities compared to other government-funded studies, according to Markey.

Because the LNG terminal in Everett, MA, which is part of his district, is in such a narrow ship channel, these levels of fire and heat pose a risk to public safety, he said. Markey noted he plans to ask Sandia National Laboratories to apply its findings to the situation in Boston Harbor, “so we can make informed decisions about how best to mitigate the potential safety impacts.”

The risks of an accidental LNG spill are the greatest in areas in which LNG shipments “transit narrow harbors or channels, pass under major bridges or over tunnels, or come within 250 meters [less than a third of a mile] of people and major infrastructure elements, such as military facilities, population and commercial centers, or national icons,” the Sandia report said.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino last Tuesday said the city was studying the prospect of taking legal action to stop tankers carrying LNG from entering Boston Harbor in the wake of the Sandia study. The study “corroborates” the city’s findings with respect to the dangers of LNG, said Seth Gitell, a spokesman for Menino. The mayor has asked the city’s legal department to review the new study and determine if there are grounds for legal action to halt LNG shipments in Boston Harbor, he told NGI.

Menino sought a temporary injunction to block LNG tankers following the terrorist strikes on Sept. 11, 2001, arguing that the tankers were a potential hazard to the city and four communities that border the harbor. But a federal judge in Boston ruled at the time that there was “no discernible claim” by the city that the LNG tankers posed a threat.

The LNG shipments that enter Boston Harbor are off-loaded at Distrigas of Massachusetts’ terminal in Everett.

In another development, Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. of Fall River, MA, last week went straight to the White House to speak with President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, about an LNG terminal that is being proposed near his city. The mayor phoned Card’s office last Tuesday and left a message with his staff, said spokesman Eric Poulin. He wants to make sure the president sees a copy of the LNG risk study.

“It says something about the debate that is raging nationally” about LNG terminals, Poulin said. “It is relevant to the debate over the placement of these facilities.”

Poten & Partners’ subsidiary Weaver’s Cove Energy is seeking to site an 4.4 Bcf capacity receiving terminal near Fall River. Lambert is opposed to the project because of environmental issues and the location, Poulin said. He noted the state of Massachusetts earlier this month rejected Weaver’s Cove supplemental environmental impact report on the project, which is needed for the company to receive its permits. That action essentially sent the company back to the drawing board, he noted.

Poulin cited a laundry list of other LNG terminals that have been proposed for Maine, Rhode Island, Long Island and Eastern Canada, which he believes could be viable alternatives to the Weaver’s Cove project.

In other action, the U.S. Coast Guard said the federal report assessing LNG risks confirmed that it is taking the right steps to prepare for and prevent potential accidents or terrorists attacks on LNG-laden tankers entering U.S. ports.

The study “confirms…that the site-specific risk management activities that the Coast Guard already has in place can significantly reduce the possibility of a major loss of cargo from an accident or attack,” said Rear Admiral Thomas H. Gilmour, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for marine safety.

“The classified version of the study will provide us even more information, and will assist the Coast Guard in further refining our risk-reduction efforts to prevent the types of attack that have the highest potential for a major loss of cargo,” he said in a prepared statement.

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