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Obstacles keep hope alive for foes of Fall River LNG facility

Panel considers requests to revisit risks, restrictions

WASHINGTON -- Nearly two months after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its final approval to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Fall River, the plan to bring huge tankers of the super-compressed and highly flammable energy into the Southeastern Massachusetts city is facing a new set of challenges.

Last week, the Navy asked the commission to reverse its decision, warning that LNG tankers en route to Fall River would have to pass through its Narragansett Bay testing area for torpedoes. The tight security required to protect the ships from terrorist attacks would disrupt tests that are critical to national security, the Navy said.

Moreover, after Congress passed a $286 billion transportation bill signed into law by President Bush this month, Massachusetts lawmakers disclosed that they had slipped language into it prohibiting the demolition of the old Brightman Street Bridge connecting Fall River and Somerset. The bridge, which is being replaced by a larger structure, spans the approach to the proposed terminal and is too narrow for LNG tankers.

Also last week, both the project's owners and nearby communities asked the commission to reopen the case. Weaver's Cove Energy, which is planning to build and operate the facility, wants to be released from several environmental restrictions imposed on its permit. Fall River, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts officials want to submit more evidence about the risk of bringing LNG through populated areas.

Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert, a staunch foe of the facility, said the Navy's objection and the disclosure that the Brightman Street Bridge will not be demolished have given him new hope.

''Both of those developments pose serious obstacles to this project," Lambert said. ''You can argue that the language on the bridge essentially renders the proposal moot. But if that weren't enough, the US Navy's very strong statement about how the work they do for national security will be jeopardized if this project goes forward ought to give FERC pause to reconsider."

A spokeswoman for Weaver's Cove Energy, Marcia MacClary, said the company will fight the challenges to its plans: ''We are continuing to move forward."

The Fall River project, a joint venture of the Amerada Hess Corp. and a private energy shipping firm called Poten & Partners, is one of 55 proposals around North America to build facilities to increase supplies of natural gas. Demand for the clean-burning fuel, which is super-cooled into a condensed liquid form for transportation, has soared due to high oil prices.

At the same time, however, public attention to the danger posed by bringing huge tanks close to urban areas has increased since the 2001 terrorist attacks. An Energy Department study found in December 2004 that an attack on an LNG tanker would create a devastating thermal blast, igniting buildings for more than a third of a mile and burning skin for up to a mile.

The issue has received particular attention in New England because of the LNG facility in Everett, which requires tankers to pass close to downtown Boston. Many critics have called for putting any new facilities away from population centers. About 9,000 people live and work within a one-mile radius of the proposed Fall River site, according to Lambert.

Despite facing strong opposition from local and state officials, Weaver's Cove appeared to have won its fight after FERC voted, 3 to 1, to approve the permit on June 30.

Several commissioners said the project could be safe with sufficient precautions, and cited the region's need for gas for home heating.

But the latest objections, especially from the Navy, caught Weaver's Cove by surprise, MacClary acknowledged.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, based in Newport, R.I., said it spends $1 billion a year testing underwater warfare equipment in Narragansett Bay.

The Navy said a moving ''safety and security zone," enforced by the Coast Guard around LNG tankers, would encompass the entire lower bay, disrupting tests of advanced torpedoes, submarines, and experimental unmanned attack ships. The permit contemplates 50 to 70 deliveries of LNG a year, or up to 140 transits in and out of the bay.

''The moving safety and security zone to be enforced around LNG tankers as they transit the lower Narragansett Bay to the proposed terminal will significantly and adversely impact in-water testing . . . which is essential to the Navy and the security of the Nation," its Aug. 15 filing said.

In its own filing, Weaver's Cove told the commission it should reject the military's request for a rehearing because it filed too late and cannot claim to have been unaware of the project, given the publicity it has received over the past two years. Moreover, it said, Navy personnel attended security briefings held by the Coast Guard about the project in late 2004 and early 2005.

In addition, the company argued, the LNG tankers would disrupt the Navy's tests no more than any other traffic that already passes through the restricted waters. And it questioned whether the testing center's mission is really critical to national security, noting that it is also involved in deploying a device that monitors bay pollution.

''Notwithstanding this alleged mission that is so critical to national security, some 700 plus vessels, transporting products such as gasoline, chemicals, and liquefied petroleum gas, already make their way through Narragansett Bay each year," the company wrote.

Even if the commission chooses to dismiss the concerns of the Navy, however, the old Brightman Street Bridge could block the arrival of tankers.

The Massachusetts delegation to Congress has been unified in its opposition to putting an LNG facility in Fall River. When FERC approved the permit application anyway, several vowed to do all they could to halt the project. But at the time, the lawmakers did not reveal their specific plans.

Representative Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes Fall River, last month won a seat on the committee drafting the final transportation bill. He was able to slip language into the law requiring the bridge to be preserved as a pedestrian path, bicycle route, and access point for emergency vehicles.

The final law also dropped funding to demolish the bridge, and instead provided $500,000 to retrofit it for its new role, said Michael Mershon, a spokesman for McGovern.

''If Weaver's Cove wants to bring LNG up by canoe, they can try to do that, but hopefully the tankers won't be able to get through," Mershon said.

The Weaver's Cove spokeswoman said the provision conflicts with a Coast Guard permit for the new Brightman Street bridge, which contemplated that the old one would be demolished. She declined to say whether the company would hire lobbyists to try to remove the language from law.

''We are disappointed to learn that this language was slipped in through the back door in an effort to stop the LNG project," she said. ''We are evaluating all options, legal, political, or otherwise, that are available to us, and we will continue to pursue development of the Weaver's Cove project."

Tamara Young-Allen, a FERC spokeswoman, said petitions for rehearing are automatically rejected if the commission does not respond to them in 30 days.

The commission next meets on Sept. 15, she said.

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