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Big PR firm is behind 'grass-roots' LNG effort

He described himself as a ''concerned citizen" and asked to address the North End neighborhood meeting. John Vitagliano's presentation last month was harrowing, detailing the widespread destruction he said would occur if one of the liquefied natural gas tankers that steam through Boston Harbor toward the Everett terminal exploded.

But Vitagliano suggested the neighbors consider another idea: Support a proposed new LNG terminal on a Boston Harbor Island, which one day might eliminate the need for tankers to travel into the harbor to Everett. He suggested they go online to check out the website of the Coalition for an LNG Solution, a group that describes itself as a grass-roots neighborhood organization.

He did not mention that the website's phone number does not ring at his Winthrop home or that of any grass-roots activist. It is a line to Regan Communications, a powerful public relations firm that has been hired by AES Corp. of Arlington, Va., the company that wants to build the Boston Harbor terminal on Outer Brewster Island.

''I believe his ultimate goal had nothing to do with Everett, but all he wanted to do is to scare people to drum up support for Outer Brewster," said Mary McGee, who attended the Jan. 12 meeting of the North End/Waterfront Residents Association. She said she became suspicious of Vitagliano in part because she knows that if the Outer Brewster terminal is built, it would not close the Everett facility. ''I feel it was so dishonest," McGee said.

Others are outraged by the appearance of having a powerful public relations firm orchestrate a citizens grass-roots campaign while being bankrolled by a well-funded industry.

''When you hear about another citizen action group that is actually a front for a major corporation with seemingly limitless resources, it really does make you feel like you are in a David and Goliath situation," said Lory Newmyer of Save the Brewsters. The Hull-based citizens group is fighting AES's proposal for the island, which is part of the national park system.

In fliers and on its website, the coalition advocates for responsible LNG terminal siting and warns that ships headed to the Everett facility are ''floating bombs [that] steam past thousands of homes and 500,000 residents who are in constant danger."

Alice Christopher, a 77-year-old East Boston resident, identified on the group's website as its leader, urged people in a letter published this month in the Globe to consider different sites for LNG terminals, such as Outer Brewster Island. To get involved, she gave a telephone number people could call. A recorded message greets callers and tells them to leave a message or visit the group's website. A Globe reporter pressed zero and was connected to Regan Communications yesterday morning.

A man who answered the phone at Christopher's house yesterday said that she is in Florida for the winter and that he would try to contact her. No one returned that call, nor a call to an Alice Christopher in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Vitagliano, a longtime community activist and former member of Massport's board, said yesterday he is concerned about LNG and denied he is associated with AES or Regan. He receives no compensation, financial or otherwise, from either company, he said. He did say, however, he was originally against the Outer Brewster project until he met with AES officials and became convinced the site was a good idea. He told the Globe yesterday he was associated with the Coalition for an LNG Solution, but then said he did not know who established the website or phone number.

''I am a community activist," Vitagliano said. He did not name other members of the coalition and said he wanted to ''deemphasize the term coalition."

''It's informal conversations with people talking together on the phone," he said.

Regan Communications officials said they offered Vitagliano a telephone line because they knew he was against the tanker traffic in Boston Harbor.

''If we had something to hide, why would the number go to the main switchboard" of Regan Communications? asked George Regan, founder of the firm. He said his firm often gets involved in community organizing. He and Regan general manager Stephen Dunleavy declined to say whether Regan set up the coalition's website, lngsolutions.blogspot.com.

Late yesterday, however, the message on the coalition's machine had been changed from a man's voice to a woman's voice. The message now tells callers there is no live attendant to take the call.

Rob Gray, the spokesman for the AES Outer Brewster project, referred all calls to Regan, saying the public relations firm was ''helping with grass-roots and community organizing, and we rely on them to respond to questions and coordinate those activities."

Controversy over LNG terminals is growing as demand soars for natural gas, which is most easily shipped as a liquid. There are now four proposals for new LNG terminals in Massachusetts: the Outer Brewster proposal, two off Gloucester, and one that has been approved by the federal government in Fall River. The coalition's website also touts the Gloucester sites as potential ways to reduce LNG tanker traffic in Boston Harbor.

But AES officials acknowledged at the outset that their project would probably not eliminate the need for the Distrigas facility in Everett.

Starting last month, Vitagliano -- who had for years been raising concerns about LNG tankers in the harbor -- and Christopher began promoting the Outer Brewster island site as a potential way to reduce tanker trips in the harbor. Recently, AES began promoting a consultant's study that showed the island location could reduce the number of tanker trips to Everett. In a letter sent to legislators this week and obtained by the Globe, the company says its proposed facility would offer an alternative to letting tankers into in the harbor during times of a terrorists threat.

Vitagliano, long active in community issues, was Boston traffic and parking commissioner under Mayor Kevin White when George Regan was White's press secretary. Alice Christopher succeeded Vitagliano as a manager for the East Boston Little City Hall under White. Vitagliano is a defender of Winthrop in its dealings with Logan Airport. He stressed yesterday that he strongly believes that Outer Brewster could significantly reduce tanker traffic to Distrigas.

Regan Communications yesterday accused the public relations firm Rasky Baerlein, which represents Distrigas, of funding a website for Save the Brewsters.

Doug Bailey, a Rasky Baerlein staff member who serves as a spokesman for Distrigas, said his firm has no involvement in Save the Brewsters or its website.

He and Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an advocacy group that opposes the Brewster proposal, said Distrigas has contributed about $25,000 a year to Save the Harbor since 1999. Berman said the money supports youth programs.

Berman added that his organization acts as a custodian of funds for Save the Brewsters and that the estimated $3,000 raised so far is from grass-roots donations.

Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com; Ebbert at ebbert@globe.com.

 Big PR firm is behind 'grass-roots' LNG effort (By Beth Daley and Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff, 2/24/06)
 Call for 'rational' route to LNG sitings (By Andrew Miga, Associated Press, 2/24/06)
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