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Yemeni tankers OK’d in harbor

Coast Guard vows to bolster security; Angry Menino sees risk of LNG terror

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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The Coast Guard said yesterday that it will allow tankers carrying liquefied natural gas from Yemen into Boston Harbor despite concerns about the cargo coming from a country that has been called a haven for terrorists.

The decision, which means LNG ships could begin arriving in Everett later this month, drew immediate condemnation from Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a longtime critic of allowing LNG shipments through the harbor. He accused the Coast Guard of putting profits ahead of people.

“This is all about helping a commercial enterprise,’’ Menino said in an interview. “I’m about helping protect people’s property and lives. They’re saying they will be as safe as any other LNG ship. I say they’ll be as unsafe as any other LNG ship.’’

Opponents of the plan worry that terrorists could board the ships as stowaways and potentially ignite the flammable gas, though the company importing the LNG, Distrigas of Massachusetts, disputes the risk.

Distrigas has signed a 20-year contract with a Yemeni supplier and expects to bring in up to 30 shipments a year to its Everett facility. The imminent delivery would be only the second from Yemen to the United States. A tanker carrying Yemeni LNG arrived earlier this week in less-populous Sabine, Texas, according to John Healey, Coast Guard captain of the port of Boston, who said the Coast Guard spent a year reviewing security plans for the Yemeni shipments.

Healey said additional security measures will be put in place by Distrigas and validated by the Coast Guard when each vessel arrives; he declined to detail the procedures. Coast Guard officials will review each shipment as it comes in, he said, and they reserve the right to deny vessels entry to the harbor.

“These measures, combined with Coast Guard inspections, are designed to ensure shipments of Yemeni LNG are as safe as any hazardous cargoes that move through the port on a regular basis,’’ said Healey, who outlined the plan in a closed-door meeting yesterday with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and officials of several cities and towns.

Menino and officials in other communities ringing the harbor had urged the Coast Guard to reject the plan in light of the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a US airliner in Detroit. The suspect in that case is a Nigerian man trained in Yemen.

DeLeo, of Winthrop, had also expressed grave concern about the potential danger of bringing the highly flammable gas into the congested harbor, but he said yesterday that the Coast Guard had allayed many of his fears.

Distrigas spokeswoman Carol Churchill said the company, which provides 20 percent of New England’s natural gas on a typical day, is very pleased with the decision. She said stringent security measures will make the vessels invulnerable to terrorists.

At the Yemeni port, she said, the ships operate at an “enhanced security level’’ with safety plans that meet international standards. Additional precautions are in place to prevent unauthorized people from boarding the ships, which have open compartments that discourage stowaways, she said.

There is a second security checkpoint between Yemen and US waters, she said. In addition, when a ship is about to enter Boston Harbor, its captain is required to check every compartment on the ship “that could possibly house a person’’ and report the findings in writing. After the captain completes the check list, the Coast Guard repeats the same procedure, she said.

“We’ve been working with the Coast Guard to bring LNG shipments safely into Boston Harbor and Everett for 40 years,’’ Churchill said. “We have a safety record of which we are very proud.’’

Company officials have taken issue with some of the opponents’ assertions and with past studies about the risks of an LNG explosion. One study, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2004, was based on flawed assumptions and its recommendations were “scientifically unsupported and premature,’’ Francis J. Katulak, the company’s senior vice president for operations, told the federal agency at the time.

Churchill said yesterday that other studies have shown that “LNG is just as safe as other liquid fuels, if not safer.’’ The studies, including two conducted by the US Department of Energy, have concluded “the risks of LNG can be managed with the appropriate procedures,’’ she said.

In the past, national security officials have said that as many as a dozen Al Qaeda operatives had entered the country by stowing away on LNG tankers. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke wrote in a 2004 memoir that national security officials had “learned that Al Qaeda operatives had been infiltrating Boston by coming in on liquid natural gas tankers from Algeria.’’

But his former assistant, Roger Cressey, said last year that tankers from Yemen pose no greater risk than those from other countries, as long as ironclad security measures are in place.

A spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick said he expects the Coast Guard to “take every precaution to ensure the safe entry of the shipment.’’

But Menino, who has long pushed for an offshore site where LNG can be unloaded, said that enhanced safety measures are not sufficient. The mayor also said that at the meeting with DeLeo, attended by the city’s homeland security chief, the Coast Guard said that biometrics, taking fingerprints of those on board, were used on the ship that made a delivery in Texas this week but may not be immediately used in Boston. “Why not do biometrics here?’’ he asked.

A Coast Guard spokesman, Lieutenant Erik Halvorson, said biometrics will be used in Boston, but may not be in place in time for the first shipment. The Coast Guard, he said, shares Menino’s “concern for the safety of the people of Boston. We take the risk very seriously.’’

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.