Coast Guard approves navigation plan for Massachusetts LNG project

The U.S. Coast Guard has approved navigational and security plans for a proposed offshore LNG facility in Mount Hope Bay that would let tankers transfer their loads through a pipeline to a storage terminal in Fall River, Mass.

While final approval lies with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which will likely hold a series of hearings in late 2009, Weaver’s Cove Energy, the company developing the project, is optimistic. Jim Grasso, spokesman for Weaver’s Cove, said the company hopes to break ground in about a year and have gas flowing by 2015. FERC has already tentatively approved the onshore terminal and processing facility, but they have not been built.

In documents filed with federal regulators, the company says the offshore berth, located one mile from shore and four miles from the company’s proposed facility in Fall River, would provide docking space and mooring dolphins for a single tanker. A steel-and-concrete platform supported by steel piles for unloading would take up about one acre.

A 2,800-foot approach channel and 1,800-foot-diameter turning basin would provide room for a 950-foot tanker with a 37.5-foot draft to be maneuvered into the berth. The channel and basin would have a dredging footprint of about 47 acres.

An LNG pumping system consisting of the tanker’s cargo pumps and booster pumps aboard the platform would conduct the supercooled gas through two pipelines buried four to five feet below the sea bottom.

Using pipe-in-pipe technology, each 24-inch pipeline would be encased in an insulated steel pipe. The outer diameter would be 36 inches.

Grasso said the plan addresses “the concerns of many folks in the community who have been skeptical.â€

The offshore berth proposal was put forth by Weaver’s Cove after the Coast Guard rejected a plan in 2007 to bring tankers directly to the storage facility on the Taunton River. The plan had called for 950-foot tankers to pass through a 400-foot-wide channel and navigate through two bridges that are just 1,000 feet apart. A second option, calling for using 750-foot tankers, was rejected as well.

John Torgan, Narragansett baykeeper remains doubtful about the acceptability of the project. “Weaver’s Cove is on their third strike now,†said Torgan, referring to the original plan for 950-foot tankers and the alternative plan for 750-foot tankers. “And now there is Plan C.â€

Mount Hope Bay — a sheltered expanse of harbors, coves, flats, marshes and beaches within Narragansett Bay — is about seven miles long by two to three miles wide. In addition to supporting a significant local commercial fishery, Narragansett Bay is highly valued by recreational boaters. Ships would have to transit Narragansett Bay to reach the terminal on Mount Hope Bay.

Torgan, who works for Save The Bay, one of several opposition groups, said the biggest obstacles will be an environmental impact statement, expected to be completed within the next few months, and the hearings, which may galvanize opponents.

Building the platform and the pipeline would require dredging 73 acres of prime spawning ground for winter flounder, which is likely to become a sensitive topic, Torgan said. In addition, Narragansett Bay’s fishermen and boaters are likely to be put off by the tanker deliveries and security zones.

As part of its approval, the Coast Guard stipulated that Weaver’s Cove provide security for each tanker, which would require an escort to enforce an exclusion zone. While specifics of the zones were not released, Torgan said LPG tankers that currently visit Narragansett Bay are required to enforce exclusion zones that extend two miles ahead, one mile astern and 1,000 yards abeam.

“It has the potential to become the dominant use of the waterway because of its scale, which is not appropriate and acceptable for this place,†Torgan said.

Nevertheless, Grasso said Weaver’s Cove is moving ahead.

The security zones would not affect most boaters because the company plans to bring the tankers in at night, Grasso said. “Security would not be an issue,†he said.

And the company is willing to work with environmental groups to mitigate the impact on the flounder.

“We have said in the past that we would commit to do that,†Grasso said. “We can build a facility that does not disturb the winter flounder. It would be a little more costly, but we have to be good corporate citizens and that’s the way it has to be.â€

Gary Randall

By Professional Mariner Staff