Plan to send LNG trains through Philly to S. Jersey port sparks outrage from residents, environmentalists
Critics say a plan to build a major NJ fuel export terminal could accelerate fracking in Pa. and worsen climate change. An interstate agency is reassessing its earlier approval of the project.
Environmentalists have stepped up alarms about a major fuel export terminal in South Jersey that they say will accelerate Pennsylvania fracking, worsen climate change, and attract 100-car trains carrying dangerous liquefied natural gas across Philadelphia.
A plan to build the Gibbstown Logistics Center in Gloucester County, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport, appears to be coming to a head by the end of the year. A hearing examiner and the staff of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) have recommended approving permits to dredge the river and to build a pier for the $450 million private port, which is being built on the site of DuPont’s former Repauno Works in Greenwich Township.
The DRBC, an interstate agency that regulates river development, voted on Sept. 10 to delay a decision at least until its next business meeting in December. But the commission will be hard-pressed to reverse its unanimous approval last year of the project, which has also received permits from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are confident that after the commissioners complete their review of the record they will concur with the hearing officer’s recommendations and reaffirm their prior approval," Jeff Sheridan, a spokesperson for the terminal’s developer, Delaware River Partners LLC, said in a statement.
“The project has been through extensive environmental and regulatory review processes and has received approval from multiple federal, state and local agencies,” said Sheridan. "When the project begins, it will provide much needed job opportunities and significant growth to the local tax base.”
The private port is designed for multiple purposes — to receive imported automobiles or as a potential staging area for companies to erect and service wind turbines off New Jersey’s shore. But primarily it is designed for exporting liquid fuels extracted by fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas region.
New Fortress Energy, a company affiliated with the developers of the Gibbstown Logistics Center, is behind a plan to manufacture liquefied natural gas (LNG) at a proposed facility in Wyalusing, Pa., northwest of Scranton, and ship the flammable liquid by road or by rail to Gibbstown. There, it would be loaded directly onto ships and either exported overseas or barged to domestic customers.
The project is unusual. Most LNG export production facilities are near deepwater ports, and the fuel is loaded directly from the plant onto vessels. Under New Fortress’s plan, the LNG would be produced in the shale-gas region and then transported in liquid form on public highways or on railroads that pass through populated areas before they reach port.
“This is the first time that this much volume of gas is being liquefied, traveling across land and then loaded directly onto ships that then go out to sea to sell it for export,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has led opposition to the plan. “There’s no other project like this, and we’re being used as guinea pigs because it’s untested.”
Environmentalists oppose LNG because it creates demand for more natural gas produced from fracking, which they say is harmful, and because it would bring more fossil fuel to market. Natural-gas proponents say it mostly displaces dirtier coal and petroleum in making electricity. But it is still a major emitter of greenhouse gases.
New Fortress has not disclosed potential routes for the LNG, but transportation experts and environmentalists say the most likely rail route would follow Norfolk Southern rail lines from Wyalusing through Allentown, Reading, and then move along the Schuylkill before traversing North Philadelphia and then crossing the Delair Bridge into Pennsauken.
In its filings for a rail permit, New Fortress said it would move several 100-car trains of LNG a day to Gibbstown to continuously fill waiting vessels, or up to 700 tractor-trailer trucks a day. The most direct highway route would follow I-476 through Philadelphia’s suburbs and then crossing the Commodore Barry Bridge into New Jersey.
Norfolk Southern, which is the only railroad serving the Wyalusing site, declined to comment on specific routing but said it works closely with local emergency responders to instruct them about hazardous materials.
“We are committed to safe operations, regardless of commodity or route, as we work and travel through Pennsylvania,” Jeff DeGraff, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson, said in an email.
LNG is produced by super-cooling natural gas to minus-260 degrees until it turns into a liquid. It must be stored and transported in insulated tanks to keep it liquid . If the Thermos-like tanks leak, LNG can freeze anything it contacts. A greater threat is that the fuel leaks, pools, and turns into vapor. If the flammable natural gas does not ignite immediately, the cloud remains cold and moves at ground level rather than dissipating into the atmosphere.
“If it gets ignited you can have this huge, tall fire which might only last three or four minutes, but it’d be really hot and burn people some ways away,” said Fred Millar, a hazardous-materials consultant and safety advocate.
“If the cloud moves into a community — oh, you’re gonna like this part — then it can get ignited by somebody lighting a cigarette, or starting their car, or just coming into contact with some hot piece of equipment like an auto exhaust pipe,” said Millar.
LNG now routinely moves in tanker trucks on highways, but federal hazardous-materials regulations allowed shipments by rail only with special permits. President Donald Trump, aiming to boost domestic energy production, directed the transportation secretary in 2019 to allow for the widespread movement of LNG by rail.
Last December, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) approved a special permit for a New Fortress affiliate, Energy Transport Solutions LLC, to haul LNG by rail from Wyalusing to Gibbstown. In June, the agency published a rule allowing for nationwide rail shipments of the material in special double-lined tank cars, known as DOT-113 tank cars.
PHMSA, which is an arm of the transportation agency, said that the DOT113 railcars had a “demonstrated safety record" for more than three decades to transport super-cooled, or cryogenic liquids, including ethylene, which has similar flammable characteristics as LNG.
The agency says that from 1980 to 2017 there were only 14 accidents involving damage to DOT-113 tank cars, including two where both the outer and inner tank walls were punctured. One accident released ethylene, which burned, and the other involved a release of liquid argon, which is not flammable.
“No injuries or fatalities were reported as a result of the release of hazardous materials from either incident,” PHMSA said.
There were four other instances in which damage or failure to the valves or fittings on a DOT-113 caused its liquid cargo to escape.
The LNG tanker cars would be fitted with several pressure-relief systems that allow the contents to escape in the event the liquid expands dramatically, which can happen if the tanks are engulfed in flames in an accident. The relief valves reduce the chances that fuel expands and causes the tank to burst dramatically, triggering a powerful blast known as a BLEVE -- a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.
“LNG transportation has a good safety record, with minimal maritime, facility, and motor carrier incidents relative to other flammable liquids,” a consultant, Cambridge Systematics, said in a report to the agency. “In other countries, LNG has been transported safely by rail with no incidents to date.”
But the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was not so sanguine. It said that only 405 DOT-113 tank cars are in service in North America — including 67 of the type that PHMSA was considering for transporting LNG. Given the small sample size, the safety board said it was not a compelling safety record.
In January, the safety agency urged PHMSA to conduct a comprehensive review of the DOT-113′s puncture resistance and its ability to withstand fires in accidents before allowing a widespread rollout of the LNG railcars, citing the string of “fiery flammable liquids accidents” that occurred with ethanol and crude-oil trains between 2009 and 2015 until stricter regulations were adopted.
NTSB also urged the transportation agency to require enhanced brakes and reduced speed limits for LNG trains. And to protect train crews in case of an accident, the safety board called for adding a buffer of at least five freight cars between a train’s engine and any tanker cars carrying LNG.
“We believe the risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate,” Robert Sumwalt, the safety board’s chairman, wrote in the group’s formal comment to the rules.
PHMSA’s final rule called for thicker steel in the outer tanks of the railcars and remote monitoring of the pressure and location of LNG tank cars, but it requires no buffer cars or enhanced brakes. The rule requires railroads to employ multiple locomotives in the middle or at the end of trains that contain larger numbers of LNG tank cars, a practice know as distributed power, which enhances braking.
“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.