Painted sky blue in a vain attempt to make them less prominent as they loom over the salt marsh, the massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage tanks on Elba Island are a familiar sight to Savannah residents when traveling along the Island’s Expressway a few miles to the east of historic downtown Savannah. Due to the vagaries of the natural gas market, the Elba LNG import terminal has been largely dormant during most of its nearly four decades in existence, but this will change if the facility’s latest owner gets its way.
Houston-based Kinder Morgan is proposing a $1.5 billion project to transform Elba into an import/export complex. The “fracking boom” in the U.S. has driven the price of natural gas to near historic lows. To drive up profits, the industry is in a rush to export natural gas overseas where prices are much higher. Elba is one of 28 proposed export terminals. Six have been approved with five already under construction. If all these projects are built, the U.S. could end up exporting over a third of domestic gas production, driving prices up and further invigorating fracking with all its attendant environmental damage.
This summer the Coastal Group Sierra Club initiated a local campaign to prevent the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) from adding Elba to the growing list of approved export terminals. It is the FERC’s responsibility under the Natural Gas Act to authorize the siting and construction of LNG terminals, and the agency is set to release a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for Elba Island in February. Due to environmental and safety hazards that have the potential to significantly impact the quality of the human environment, the Sierra Club has requested that the FERC implement the more rigorous process of producing an Environmental Impact Statement. Savannahians can help by submitting comments supporting this request during the 45-day comment period for the Draft EA.
With Elba’s location on a busy shipping channel in close proximity to a major population center and the Savannah River industrial corridor, reviving this sleeping giant will expose Savannah residents to serious safety and environmental risks.
Safety Hazards & Danger Zones
LNG is methane super-cooled to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit condensing it into a liquid to render it commercially viable to transport overseas in tankers. The liquefaction of large volumes of LNG (11.5 billion cubic feet storage capacity), will require the on-site storage of large quantities of toxic and potentially explosive refrigerants, including propane, ethane, acid-gases, and cancer-causing benzene.
While regulators acknowledge that leaks of LNG and these other chemicals could lead to flammable and potentially explosive vapor clouds and pool fires,[i] independent scientists believe the FERC underrates the hazards of LNG export facilities and the risks of cascading catastrophic events that “could cause the near-total and possibly total loss of the facility, including any LNG ship berthed there. Such an event could present serious hazards to the public well beyond the facility boundaries.”[ii]
The most serious hazards from LNG spills are pool fires and vapor clouds.[iii] The federally funded Sandia Labs Report identifies “hazard zones” for LNG spills over water.[iv] Depending on where it is in the shipping channel, a spill from a tanker in the Savannah River could put half of Tybee and several neighborhoods in danger zones.
The FERC only examines land-based hazards, so hazards from an LNG tanker spill, even while at dock, are not analyzed in the application process. Also, spill/accident analysis is based on small leaks, not cascading worst-case scenarios.[v] According to Jerry Havens, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas who helped develop LNG hazard modeling, “We’re talking about so much energy and so much potential for a catastrophic event to occur. We should really think about whether we should allow these things to be built close to any population center.”[vi]
Havens defines the hazard zone to the public as a minimum of a 3-mile radius from an LNG facility.[vii] Within 3-miles of Elba Island are four schools and thousands of homes and businesses. Yet, emergency response plans for an accident at Elba Island have not been presented to the community or made public.
Dangerous Air Pollution and Toxic Chemicals
According to Kinder Morgan’s own documents, the facility on Elba will emit hundreds of tons of hazardous air particulates, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide into Savannah’s air. These additional air pollutants could result in a wide range of local environmental and health impacts. Ozone pollution, for example, has been linked to increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, especially in children, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.
Leaving aside the emissions from the extraction and burning of natural gas, greenhouse gas emissions from the facility’s operations will increase 700 percent. If approved, the LNG export facility will require a new electrical substation, quadrupling the electrical capacity to Elba Island.[viii]
Traffic Congestion and Roadway Safety
According to Kinder Morgan’s estimates, over 10,000 heavy construction trucks a month will deliver equipment and material to the facility[ix], increasing the volume of traffic in peak hours over 50%. Operations traffic, post-construction, will include regular transport of flammable refrigerants, including ethylene, propane, and isopentan, on Savannah roads, exposing the public to additional safety hazards.
Aquifer and Surface Water
Elba Island will continue to withdraw water from the Floridan aquifer for use in treating gas for export. Some 10,000 gallons per day will be drawn from the region’s most pure and important water source.[x] Additionally, over 7,000 pilings will be driven 100 feet into the island during construction, yet Kinder Morgan is proposing that “no extra measures are required to prevent excess surficial water from entering the Floridian Aquifer.”[xi]
In addition to carrying a volatile, potentially explosive cargo, the LNG tankers, equivalent in length to three football fields, would dump billions of gallons of ballast water which could introduce invasive species, and contaminants into the nearby Atlantic waters and Savannah River each year.
[i] GEXCON, (2015) Elba Island Liquefaction and Export Project – Updated Hazard Analysis – September 30, 2015. (Docket CP14-103). Retrieved from www.ferc.gov
[ii] Havens, J., & Venart, J. (2015). United States LNG terminal safe-siting policy is faulty. Submitted to FERC (Docket No. CP13-483). Retrieved from www.ferc.gov
[iii] Parfomak, P., & Vann, A. (2009). Liquefied natural gas (LNG) Import Terminals: Siting, safety, and regulation. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://research.policyarchive.org/19859.pdf
[iv] Luketa, A., Hightower, M., & Attaway, S. (2008). Breach and safety analysis of spills over water from large liquefied natural gas carriers. Sandia Report. Retrieved from http://www.lngfacts.org/resources/SANDIA_2008_Report_-_Large_LNG_Vessel_Sa.pdf
[v] Havens, J., & Spicer, T. (2007). United States regulations for siting LNG terminals: Problems and potential. Journal of Hazardous Materials. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2006.10.020
[viii] Kinder Morgan. (2014). Application of Elba Liquefaction Company and Southern LNG Company, L.L.C. for authorization under Section 3 of the NGA. (Docket CP14-103). Retrieved from www.ferc.gov