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Living With a Ghastly Secret

The Port of Astoria, without any public discussion, has signed a 60-year, transferrable lease with Calpine Corporation to devlop a liquified natural gas receiving facility at the mouth of the Columbia River. The pirates must be stopped!
Living With A Ghastly Secret

By Peter Huhtala

From: 'The HipFish'

For three months it was a well-kept secret. Few other than the Port of Astoria Commissioners and selected local elected officials from Warrenton, Astoria, and Clatsop County (and some of their staff) knew the truth. They kept their lips sealed. A half-billion dollar investment was at stake, with tax revenues a-go-go. And what's more: family wage jobs! It was better to keep quiet, lest the not-in-our-backyard folks muck up a good thing. The cryogenic gold rush was heading for the Skipanon Peninsula.

Three days after the presidential election, the Port of Astoria convened a special meeting and granted a 60-year lease for 96 acres of the Skipanon Peninsula to a limited liability corporation (Skipanon, LLC) set up by an energy company called Calpine, for the purpose of bringing in mass quantities of super-cooled liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Earlier in 2004, Calpine Corporation had withdrawn plans to build a similar LNG import terminal near Eureka, California. Fierce local opposition from fishermen, downtown business owners and conservationists forced the project to be shelved before a lease could be signed. Not so in Clatsop County, Oregon. Sure there is community opposition, now that the citizens know about Calpine's proposal. But that lease got signed, a full two days after the Port of Astoria let the press know that a lease was under consideration. Calpine had control of the property.

In this cryogenic gold rush, as in any other, control of property is essential if the riches are to be tapped. Calpine "staked their claim" to the Skipanon Peninsula. At least two competitors are working to secure viable LNG importing sites in the lower Columbia River. Calpine knows that only one such facility, at most, might be granted permits by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The Port chose not to wait for a regularly-scheduled meeting to address the LNG issue, and didn't take the time to first fully inform the public as to the possible consequences of their action. As a result, many local citizens were outraged. When the Port and Calpine held meetings after the lease decision was made, the outcry at backroom politics cozying up to the big bucks almost overshadowed the trepidation over the dangers of the project. The process to this point, even more than Calpine's project, has divided the community.

Peter Gearin, executive director of the Port of Astoria, defended the Port's handling of the situation in a letter to The Daily Astorian saying, "In making its decision to follow normal and legal public process, not more, to lease the site to Calpine, the commissioners did so with an understanding that site control was the mechanism by which Calpine could assess the feasibility of the site, and that many different permits must be filed and approved by a variety of public agencies, each with their own public input process opportunities."

Big projects like this require numerous approvals at the local, state and federal levels, right? Wrong.

The FERC insists that the federal government has sole siting authority over LNG import terminals. This doctrine of federal pre-emption is being challenged in court by the State of California, but right now, according to the Bush administration, Oregon-let-alone-Clatsop-County-or-Warrenton has zero control over whether Skipanon, LLC, is allowed to build their LNG receiving station. If Calpine applies to Oregon's Energy Facility Siting Council and Oregon disagrees with the FERC, the feds win. Period.

Recently, dozens of proposals for LNG plants have surfaced nationwide. Coastal areas of lower population in particular are being targeted, partly because Congress has clearly stated a preference that these facilities be sited "remotely." Another motive for choosing small towns was offered by Mayor Ed Lambert of Fall River, Massachusetts, a city where LNG import is muscling in despite local opposition. Mayor Lambert said, "I think it is no accident that the industry has chosen places like Fall River, which tend to be lower-income, working class communities where they don't expect educated local opposition."

Remote siting sure sounds good to me after reading the December 2004 report by Sandia National Laboratories that depicts possible, though "not likely" events that could cause LNG to spill from a tanker which would then boil and ignite, melting steel a half mile away, and burning buildings and people more than a mile distant. And then there are the suffocating gas vapor clouds that could drift much further until they burst into a dramatic inferno.

But barring an unusual accident, sabotage, or terrorism, what might it be like living with an LNG import terminal in our midst? Why might the Port of Astoria have considered a more extensive public process, or even some preservation of local control, before capitulating to Calpine's insistence that they must have control of the property?

Keep off the Company water!

Well, there's this matter of "exclusion" zones, otherwise known as "safety" or "security" zones. These zones are designed to keep terrorists, crazy people, sloppy boaters and idiots away from the LNG tankers and storage tanks. As they near the LNG facility near Kenai, Alaska, vessels must give the LNG tankers 1000 yards of clearance. When LNG tankers roll toward Boston Harbor, all maritime traffic is cleared for two miles ahead and 1000 yards to the side, the bridge is closed and aircraft are barred from the vicinity.

One thousand yards. It seems like a considerable distance until you start to think about steel melting at a half mile, or flesh frying at twice that far -- heck at four miles if you believe some studies.

There is no reason to believe that a 1000-yard clearance from these terrorist targets would not be required by Homeland Security, and plenty of reasons why the space between these behemoth (900-1200 feet long) LNG tankers and other ships, pleasure craft, and fishing vessels should not be considerably farther. Commercial fishing, shipping, and enjoyment of the wonders of the mouth of the Columbia River would have to wait - actually some would have to flee - as LNG tankers and their armada of gunboats take the river. (Escorts of up to a half dozen Coast Guard vessels accompany LNG tankers approaching other ports, along with two or three powerful tugs.)

At least four times a week the Columbia River entrance channel would be closed, along with much of the lower river fishing and crabbing ground. Homeland Security could also prohibit access to Warrenton Harbor while the tankers are at dock.

Well, there's one bit of adjustment we'd have to make - subjugating all commercial and recreational maritime traffic on the river in deference to the LNG gold.

What's a little cancer and lung disease when we need jobs?

Calpine Corporation has not yet fully disclosed the pollution that would accompany their 50-75 job producing enterprise. What Calpine suggests is to build a 150-megawatt gas-fired power plant to warm up the LNG even as it produces electricity. This plant and its associated activities would be the largest single source of air pollution in Clatsop County.

Much of the pollution generated by this plant would most severely harm our most vulnerable people - the very young and the elderly. We could expect, based on similar proposals, that 100,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides (which form the corrosive nitrite acid when combined with water) would be released from the power plant each year. Twenty thousand pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as the cancer-causing Benzene, would be dumped into the air, along with 64,000 ponds of tiny, and potentially toxic particulates called PM-10.

Huge amounts more air pollution would come from the 100 tons of fuel per day the LNG tankers burn while in port, as well as from the diesel exhaust spewed by support craft.

Ok, that's another change in lifestyle that we might not get to choose - inhaling toxic fumes that cause asthma and cancer.

Big Brother of the waterfront

Unfortunately, I can't help but imagine the easy transition from the government secrecy we've already observed to government oppression in the name of security. As with the periodic shipments of LNG to the Boston area, there is no reason to believe that armed guards will not line the shores of our communities as the LNG tankers come and go.

The Sandia National Laboratories report cited "enhanced" security measures as the primary means to reduce the chances of an intentional LNG spill and fire.

What do you think: would this police-state security encourage desirable tourism and clean, safe business and industry?


Aside from effectively abdicating local control over public safety issues surrounding LNG import, the Port of Astoria Commission left at least three areas of local concern to the whim of the federal government. Traditional maritime traffic, whether for business or pleasure would need to defer to petro-chemical transport. The air quality of our area would be substantially degraded and the health of many of our citizens sacrificed. And our freedom to visit the waterfronts of the region would be tempered by the presence of security forces with automatic weapons.

These are local issues that concern the quality of our life and the nature of economic activity we want to encourage. No federal agency should make those decisions on our behalf. It's up to us to insist that those we've elected, including the Port of Astoria commissioners, take a powerful stand to defend our values. Our leaders must forthrightly acknowledge that shutting the public out of the process before leasing public property for a dangerous and outrageously controversial enterprise was a ghastly mistake.

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