Fire officials voice concerns on LNG threat
The Boston Globe
By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff, 2/27/2004
Boston fire officials told a state panel yesterday they are unprepared to deal with the potential disaster stemming from an explosion aboard one of the giant tankers that carries liquefied natural gas through Boston Harbor.
Officials said the hazardous situation results in part from a lack of communication with the US Coast Guard, along with questions about the chain of command if such an event took place, and conflicting reports about the impact an LNG explosion would have on nearby communities.
"We feel that the risk is more than the Boston Fire Department could deal with," Fire Commissioner Paul A. Christian told the House Committee on Homeland Security and Federal Affairs, which is studying tanker safety. "We have a lot of serious and grave concerns."
Fire and police officials from Boston and Everett said they have received little training in dealing with the LNG tankers, beyond escorting the massive vessels through the harbor and under the Tobin Bridge to the Distrigas facility in Everett.
"I think sometimes there is a lack of communication [with the US Coast Guard] on some issues," Everett Police Chief Steven Mazzie told the committee.
Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge about what would happen if an LNG tanker was damaged during a terrorist attack. While industry officials believe a fire would be contained and remain around the ship, Christian expressed concern about the potential for clouds of natural gas to drift and find an ignition source miles inland, creating a "back burn" that could devastate sections of Charlestown, Everett, East Boston, and downtown.
Coast Guard representatives did not attend yesterday's hearing, drawing the ire of Representative Martin J. Walsh, Democrat of Boston, who chairs the committee.
According to Coast Guard spokesman Dean Jones, Captain Brian Salerno, the Coast Guard's captain of the Boston port, detailed security measures taken in Boston Harbor since Sept. 11, 2001, in a letter sent to Edward Flynn, the state's secretary of public safety, who attended the hearing.
Richard L. Grant, president and CEO of Tractebel LNG and Distrigas, which operates the Everett facility, minimized the risks posed by the weekly gas shipments, saying that even if an LNG tanker were attacked, any explosion would be confined to the damaged section of the double-hulled ship.
"Unquestionably, alarmist views exist," Grant said, adding that there has never been a recorded collision, grounding, fire, explosion, or hull failure that has breached the cargo tank of an LNG ship.
Testimony also focused on the cost of the security escorts for the tankers. State Police officials said a "low-ball" estimate of state security costs -- including sending divers under piers to check for bombs and placing snipers on nearby rooftops -- has totaled well over $1.4 million for about 120 LNG deliveries since October 2001.
The cost and risk are high enough that Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole suggested that the federal government place Boston Harbor on an "indefinite high alert" to make the state eligible for federal aid for the LNG patrols.
Panel members said they would take the proposal under advisement.
Boston is the only port in North America where LNG tankers travel near highly populated areas.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, national security officials identified Boston Harbor as a potential site for terrorist attack, largely because of the close passage of the LNG cargo to a major US city.
Since that time, State Police and US Coast Guard personnel have escorted each LNG shipment into Boston Harbor and up the Mystic River to the Distrigas storage depot in Everett.
The shipments arrive once a week, slowing or closing traffic on the Tobin Bridge as a heavily armed flotilla escorts the tanker.
Mac Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.