Complicated route through two bridges
may doom Massachusetts LNG project

After passing through the first bridge, a vessel would have to move laterally 100 feet to line up with the opening of the second bridge. (Ginny Howe illustration)

The U.S. Coast Guard has concluded that the waterway leading to a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Fall River, Mass., would be unsafe for navigation by the kind of large tankers that would use the terminal.

In order to reach the terminal on Weaver’s Cove, 750-foot long tankers would have to pass up a 400-foot-wide channel and navigate through two bridges across the Taunton River that are just 1,100 feet apart. The Coast Guard was also concerned about the risks posed by the amount of vessel traffic the terminal would generate. The developers expect the terminal to handle 125 ships per year.

The route “is unsuitable from a navigation safety perspective for the type, size and frequency of LNG marine traffic associated with (the) proposal,” the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard decision may doom the project, but Weaver’s Cove Energy, the company that wants to build and operate the terminal, insists that it still hopes to move ahead.

The setback for the project was the direct result of a successful effort by opponents of the LNG terminal to block federal funding for removal of an old bridge across the Taunton River. When the LNG project was originally proposed, plans existed for the removal of the bridge. With the old bridge in place, tankers approaching the terminal would have to pass through two bridge openings that are 1,100 feet apart. The Coast Guard concluded that the complicated maneuvers required to take a tanker through the two bridges would make the route too difficult for safe navigation.

Weaver’s Cove Energy received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2005 to build and operate the terminal. At that time, it was assumed that the older of the two bridges would be gone by the time the terminal opened and that a dredging permit would have been obtained.

Under the original plan, the terminal would have handled about 50 to 60 ships a year, 950-foot tankers with a beam of 145 feet. To reach the terminal, the tankers would proceed via Narragansett Bay’s East Passage to Mount Hope Bay. Once in the Fall River area, ships would pass up the Taunton River with its two bascule bridges less than a quarter mile apart: the new Brightman Street Bridge, which is under construction, and the old Brightman Street Bridge, which had been scheduled for removal.

Since federal transportation legislation passed in 2005 included a provision that “no federal funds shall be obligated or expended for the demolition of the existing Brightman Street Bridge,” it now seems unlikely that the older bridge will be dismantled.

Weaver’s Cove responded to the elimination of the funding for removal of the bridge by reducing the size of the tankers to 750 feet in length and a beam of 85 feet. (Each tanker would be accompanied by a tethered tug, which would increase the overall length of the maneuvering unit to 900 feet.) The company also more than doubled the number of projected ship calls to about 125, which would mean 250 transits per year.

Having navigated the federal channel, a vessel approaches the old Brightman Street Bridge opening on the left (west) side of the channel. After passing through, a vessel would encounter the new Brightman Street Bridge 1,100 feet dead ahead. In order to line up for a safe passage under the new bridge’s 200-foot mid-channel opening, a large vessel would need to come to a dead stop and then move laterally to starboard approximately 100 feet.

In October 2007, the Coast Guard concluded that the constraints presented by the route, aggravated by failure to obtain a dredging permit, made it unsafe. That conclusion would seem to stop the terminal. However, Weaver’s Cove insists that it still hopes to build it.

Gordon Shearer, the company’s chief executive told The Boston Globe, “We are pressing ahead; we have not given up.”

Currently there are five import LNG terminals in the United States: Domac-Suez Energy LNG in Everett, Mass.; Dominion-Cove Point LNG, at Cove Point, Md.; El Paso-Southern LNG, Elba Island, Ga.; Southern Union-Trunkline LNG, in Lake Charles La.; and Gulf Gateway Energy Bridge-Excelerate Energy, off the Louisiana coast.

By Professional Mariner Staff