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Plan to send LNG trains through Philly to S. Jersey port sparks outrage from residents, environmentalists

By Andrew Maykuth, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

"The department's new rule carefully lays out key operational safeguards to provide for the safe transportation of LNG by rail to more parts of the country where this energy source is needed," U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement in June.

Environmental groups and the attorneys general of the District of Columbia and 15 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, filed a federal court challenge of the rules. But a source close to the Gibbstown project said the developers do not believe its project would be impacted, since New Fortress received a special LNG rail permit last December.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club have rallied more than a dozen environmental groups to oppose the dock-dredging plan before the Delaware River Basin Commission, including petitions containing more than 50,000 signatures. The public complaints cite public safety concerns about "bomb trains" traveling through urban areas, and the environmental harm from more gas drilling and consumption of fossil fuels.

"The transporting of LNG by railcar is unprecedented and untested and exposes Philadelphia residents and workers to the danger of an accident or derailment that could be catastrophic," five Philadelphia elected officials said in a Sept. 8 letter to the commission. The letter was signed by Councilmembers Kendra Brooks, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, and State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D., Phila.).

Opponents have also sought to undermine the project by pointing out that world markets for LNG are oversupplied currently, depressing the price for the commodity and calling into question the wisdom of investing in it. Some of New Fortress Energy's outlets for LNG - power projects in the Caribbean and Ireland - are also rethinking their commitments to imported fossil fuels.

But the commission's staff and a hearing officer who heard eight days of testimony on the project say the DRBC's review is limited to the impact that dredging and construction of the 1,300-foot-long pier would have on water quality and river flows, rather than concerns about rail traffic, climate change, and potential markets for commodities.

"The commission does not review or approve the cargo that moves through a marine terminal," the DRBC staff said in a recommendation last year. "Commenters raised safety and related public health concerns associated with the transport of LNG, but which are unrelated to water resources, including the risks that LNG will explode or spill from trucks transporting it, especially given the proximity of the project to residences, bridges and the Philadelphia Airport."

This is not the first time the DRBC has considered permits related to the Gibbstown project. The commission in 2017 approved construction of the port facility, as well as a smaller dock that is already in service.

Last year it unanimously approved the facility's plan for the second pier, which is located more than 600 feet offshore and can accommodate larger vessels. But it put the Dock 2 permit on hold after the Delaware Riverkeeper Network appealed, saying the public did not have a sufficient opportunity to comment.

 

A hearing officer, John B. Kelly, heard eight days of testimony in May, and in July released a 102-page report in which he recommended the commission reaffirm its previous approval for the project. He said restrictions on construction ensured that its impact on water quality and aquatic life "will be localized and transitory."

In a footnote, Kelly also cautioned about rejecting the project in light of its track record of approval. "It is reasonable to assume that rejecting a project approved by all other relevant agencies would subject DRBC to accusations that it had politicized its consideration of the project," he wrote.

Environmental groups suspected the commission would green-light the project at its Sept. 10 meeting, though the matter was not on the DRBC's formal agenda. They stepped up pressure directly on the four governors that send representatives to the commission - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. A fifth seat on the commission is held by a federal representative, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At the meeting, Kenneth J. Warren, the commission's general counsel, announced that the commissioners were unable to complete a review of the voluminous record, and invited them to put off consideration. He said a delay "would not be intended to signal" an outcome.

The measure to table passed by a 3-1 vote, with the Trump administration representative voting no. Pennsylvania abstained.

Shawn Garvin, the Delaware natural resources secretary and current DRBC chairman, said the commission's delay should not be misinterpreted, and suggested that his state's review of the project would be confined.

"Our focus is and will be on those things that fall under DRBC jurisdiction," said Garvin, who served as regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.

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