PennEast Pipeline pauses land acquisitions in Pennsylvania

The proposed PennEast Pipeline announced an abrupt halt to legal proceedings to secure needed property easements for its 118-mile Pennsylvania-to-New Jersey natural gas pipeline, a move that raises new questions about the project’s future.

PennEast cited a desire to clear regulatory hurdles before resuming the court cases to secure the approximately 70 properties it needs in Pennsylvania. Patricia Kornick, a spokeswoman for the project, said there was no timetable for when the proceedings might resume. She characterized the move as merely a temporary pause and a “procedural step.”

However, federal filings by companies behind the project painted a starker and dimmer picture about the project’s future.

Quarterly reports by the companies that make up the PennEast backers each shared similar language about how regulatory and legal challenges have clouded the start of construction and prompted them to declare multi-million-dollar write-offs in connection with the project. 

For instance, UGI Energy Services, one of five partners with a 20 percent stake in PennEast, said it was taking a $93 million impairment charge. “The ultimate outcome of the PennEast construction project cannot be determined at this time,” it said in a regulatory filing.

Another project backer, New Jersey Resources, reported a charge of $92 million, citing “management’s estimates and assumptions regarding the likelihood of certain outcomes related to required regulatory approvals and pending legal matters, the timing of which remains uncertain.”

PennEast has had many corkscrew twists since it got started in 2014 but its announcement last week that it was shelving the property acquisitions in Pennsylvania took even opponents by surprise. 

PennEast had filed lawsuits against private property owners in federal court in Pennsylvania, seeking easements for the 36-inch pipeline, which would wind its way through Carbon, Luzerne, Monroe and Northampton Counties in Pennsylvania.

It was during a conference call with a judge in the case on Aug. 9 that a PennEast lawyer made the surprise announcement about suspending proceedings.

“PennEast believes it is not prudent to complete the acquisition of the rights of way in the pending actions in Pennsylvania, as it might not be necessary for some time,” Kornick said. “PennEast is exploring with attorneys representing landowners the idea of dismissing the actions without prejudice and restarting legal proceedings once it clears the regulatory hurdles and has a better understanding of when it would need to acquire the property interests.”

Kornick did not clarify why PennEast would not continue with acquisition proceedings at the same time it worked to clear regulatory hurdles.

The future of PennEast’s property acquisitions in New Jersey is so far unclear, said Timothy P. Duggan, a lawyer specializing in eminent domain cases and who is representing about 45 property owners, including nonprofits, municipalities, counties and private individuals. PennEast is looking to gain easements on about 140 parcels in New Jersey.

He said the number of cases filed in federal court by PennEast was double that of Pennsylvania because New Jersey land owners put up a stiffer fight, and in many cases did not allow PennEast access at all to conduct surveys.

“We would not budge on any issue as we fought the pipeline,” he said. As for what PennEast’s decision about the land in Pennsylvania might mean for the future of the project, Duggan said, “I think it’s too soon to say but I do think it is showing some level of doubt on their side.”

Michael Spille, the founder of West Amwell Citizens Against the Pipeline in Hunterdon County, N.J., said his reading of regulatory filings by project backers suggests they’re tired of financial losses and the announcement about the suspension of property acquisition efforts “says to me that they’re signaling to the market, look for all of this to go away.”

“PennEast started this back in 2014 with expectations to be in-service within a few years, but were utterly gobsmacked at the level of resistance in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” he added. “Since then, the partners combined have spent close to half a billion dollars with nothing to show for it.”

From the start, opposition to the pipeline has been energetic and galvanized activists across both states

Though PennEast has billed itself as an affordable energy source to customers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, opponents maintain it would harm the environment, including 87 waterways and 53 wetlands, and be a setback to a transition to cleaner, greener energy sources. 

The proposal would send Marcellus Shale gas from Dallas, Pa., in northeastern Pennsylvania, to Transco’s pipeline interconnection near Pennington in Mercer County, N.J. A revised proposal called for splitting the construction into two phases: 68 miles of pipeline entirely in Pennsylvania, and the remaining 50 miles in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The pipeline in its second phase would cross the Delaware River near Riegelsville, Pa.   

The project’s website called for the first phase to have an in-service date of November 2021 and the second phase, including the remaining portion of the route in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, being in service in 2023 – a timetable that is now all but evaporated.

PennEast faces layers of uncertainty, including the outcome of a federal court challenge led by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and others to the process that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relied on in giving the go-ahead to the pipeline, and the need for permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Delaware River Basin Commission, and the Departments of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Anthony M. Corby, a lawyer in Hershey, Pa., who specializes in eminent domain proceedings and who represents 18 clients whose land was targeted for acquisition by PennEast, said the project’s announcement was surprising given that it recently won a critical ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that case, the court in June ruled that PennEast had the authority to use eminent domain to acquire lands controlled by New Jersey for the project. The justices ruled 5-4 that it could initiate condemnation proceedings. 

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the federal government through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could constitutionally confer on pipeline companies the authority to condemn rights-of-way on properties in which a state claimed an interest.

Specifically, a provision made to the Natural Gas Act in 1947 authorized companies that had gained FERC’s approval to condemn all necessary rights-of-way, whether owned by private parties or states, said the majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice John Roberts. New Jersey and others argued that the states’ sovereign immunity prevented the condemnation proceedings but a majority of the justices disagreed.

Patty Cronheim of Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline in New Jersey, said opponents were cautiously assessing last week’s PennEast announcement but not reading too much into it. 

“We don’t know exactly what PennEast is up to or why they’re doing this,” she said. “We’re not doing a victory lap on this at all.”

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, agreed.

“We can’t rest assured that this is the signal to the end of the project,” she said, adding that the announcement could be some kind of prelude to shifting the pipeline route to include property owners more open to negotiating. 

She did say, however, that the announcement reflected well on those who persevered in standing up to PennEast. “People can resist, and it can matter,” she said.

Plan pushed to make Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area a national park

Legging out at 38 letters, “Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area” does not exactly roll off the tongue. 

Now, instead, imagine a moniker like “Delaware Water Gap National Park and Preserve.” Even though that name is longer – at 39 letters – it features the marquee words “national park.” 

That’s a phrase that members of the public can wrap their heads around, as it readily calls to mind places like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks. 

That kind of rebranding and profile-raising is part of a plan promoted by the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club to elevate the recreation area to a hybrid park/preserve and to triple its current size of 70,000 acres.

It’s not a new idea. Similar trial balloons were floated about a dozen years ago and again in 2014, but organizers say it’s a proposal whose time has come.

The recreation area, which was created in 1965 and straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is host to an array of outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, boating, hiking and cycling; and an abundance of waterfalls, wetlands and wildlife, including threatened species, reptiles, amphibians, deer and bears.

It spans all or parts of five counties, and includes a 40-mile section of the Middle Delaware National Scenic River and a 27-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Bringing “prestige factor”

John Kashwick, vice chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the project took on new energy after another area managed by the National Park Service, the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, was redesignated in December as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

“The cachet of a national park is gold for a local community,” the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area’s former superintendent, John Donahue, said in a webinar hosted by the Sierra Club chapters on June 30. 

The recreation area has infused up to $150 million in visitor spending each year for the last decade, he said, adding, “Make it a national park, and you’ll start to see a whole new audience start to come and visit.”

Kashwick said upgrading the area to a park is a social equity issue and a way to make a national park accessible to underserved populations in New York City and Philadelphia, each of which are about 90 minutes from the recreation area. 

“It’s the prestige factor. People will recognize it as more worthy of protection.” — John Kashwick, vice chairman of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club

Donahue, who is working with the Sierra Club, noted that the vast majority of the country’s 63 national parks are in the West

While the East Coast has a number of other units run by the National Park Service, such as National Memorials, Monuments and Historical Parks, the closest national parks to the New York metro area are Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (five hours from New York City) and Acadia National Park in Maine (nine hours from New York City).

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is within a three-hour drive of 60 million people.

More visitors, more money

The plan would not make the entire area a national park but rather take a hybrid approach that would designate parts of it as a park and parts as preserve, which plan supporters say would ensure that hunting would be allowed to continue. (Hunting is allowed in some but not all units managed by the Park Service.)

The Sierra Club’s plans call for the recreation area to triple in size to more than 200,000 acres by connecting existing state preserve lands in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and unifying them under federal management. Some connecting private lands would be purchased as part of the upgraded designation.

Supporters of a park say Yellowstone draws about as many visitors as DWGNRA and that increased tourism could be matched with increased operating funds for staff and services.

“Make it a national park, and you’ll start to see a whole new audience start to come and visit.” – John Donahue, former superintendent of the recreation area

Infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, like the 20 miles of Route 209 maintained by the Park Service, are critical to local communities, Donahue said. The DWGNRA is one of eight Park Service units in the country that make up 60 percent of all of the agency’s infrastructure, but the other seven units get twice as much money in operating appropriations, he said.

But if the recreation area already draws more than 4 million visitors annually, ranking it as among the most visited Park Service units, why does it need a higher profile?

“It’s the prestige factor,” Kashwick said. “People will recognize it as more worthy of protection.”

Reviving an old plan

This is not the first time the idea of elevating the recreation area to a park has been raised.

Kashwick said the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club pursued a similar plan about a dozen years ago, going so far as to secure funding from the national club to study the issue.

The plan ran into opposition over fears that hunting – a popular activity in the recreation area – would be curbed or banned. Similar concerns surfaced after Donahue penned a “Vision 2030” plan in 2014 that called for a park/preserve approach.

Kathleen Sandt, a spokeswoman for the recreation area, said “Vision 2030” was “an internal working document” and that “it was never an official park or NPS plan or strategy.”

As for the Sierra Club’s proposal, Sandt said: “Any changes in name or designation of a National Park Service unit, like Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, would require an act of Congress. The NPS does not comment on congressional affairs, including future or pending acts of Congress.”

The members of Congress whose districts include the recreation area did not respond to requests for comment, and representatives for the U.S. senators for New Jersey and for Pennsylvania could not be reached.

Donald Miles, the vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, said proponents “don’t view this project as political at all but as one involving grassroots community involvement and advocacy.” 

Opposition then and now

How the new plan is received remains to be seen. Advocates expect it will be a process several years in the making.

Numerous hunting and sportsmen groups contacted by Delaware Currents for reaction to the proposal did not respond to requests for comment.

At least one municipal official, George B. Harper Jr., the mayor of Sandyston Township in New Jersey, expressed skepticism about the proposal. 

He said public lands already make up more than 70 percent of the township and that the community’s restaurants, bars, delis, fruit stands, gas stations all benefit enormously from hunting.

“That hunting season – from the time they start with birds and small game – that economic impact is quite dramatic,” he said.

Harper said he did not believe feelings about a national park have softened since “Vision 2030” drew opposition from the township over concerns that hunting would be restricted or prohibited. 

“Sandyston Township’s local businesses will suffer financially because these restrictions will force tourism to other States who offer these activities,” a 2015 township resolution reads in part.

Even though park supporters say those misgivings are misplaced, Harper was not reassured that hunting would be a protected activity under the new designation. 

“It won’t be in any document that’s going to be enforceable by Sandyston Township,” he said. “What they claim today is something that will change tomorrow.” 

New obstacles loom large for Wyalusing-Gibbstown LNG project

A contentious plan to export liquified natural gas from a Delaware River port faces new political, economic and environmental headwinds that raise questions about its future.

A new White House administration, a global market that was once white-hot that has considerably cooled in the past two years and pandemic-related workforce disruptions cast long shadows over the proposal, which is spearheaded by New Fortress Energy.

A quick recap

The project would start with fracked natural gas being piped via an interconnection with Stagecoach Pipeline from the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania to a plant in Wyalusing, Pa., about 50 miles northwest of Scranton.

The plant would liquefy the gas by cooling it to 260 degrees below zero, and then send it by truck and rail roughly 180 miles away to a port in Gibbstown, N.J., which is southwest of Philadelphia.

From the port, the LNG would be shipped via the Delaware River to overseas markets. The project would have an average daily production capacity of 3.6 million gallons.

The company has said in public filings that it expects the $800 million project to be operational in the first quarter of 2022 but work on the Wyalusing site has been on an extended pause.

Maxine Meteer, the secretary-treasurer for Wyalusing Township, said in an email that the municipality had no update about the status of the project.

The company continues to maintain the property “but we have no information about their schedule to proceed,” she wrote.

New political forces at work

On April 10, 2019, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13868, “Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth,” which directed the federal Department of Transportation to pave the way for a rule allowing LNG for the first time to be transported in rail tankers.

In a separate but related development, on Dec. 5, 2019, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a special permit to a New Fortress-affiliated company, Energy Transportation Solutions, allowing it to transport LNG in specialized rail tank cars – a critical component of the Wyalusing-Gibbstown project.

But now political winds have shifted.

Biden revoked the Trump executive order with his own Executive Order 13990, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.”

Also, the pipeline administration proposed suspending the national authorization to transport LNG by rail pending completion of research and an external review by technical experts.

The pipeline agency said it would review “recent actions that could be obstacles to administration policies promoting public health and safety, the environment, climate change mitigation; and provide an opportunity for stakeholders to contribute their perspectives on rail transportation of LNG.”

The suspension of the national rule is pending a review by a committee of independent experts of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. A first phase of the committee’s work has been completed and a second phase is scheduled to be completed in mid-2022.

Meanwhile, 15 state attorneys general and five environmental groups had challenged the national rule allowing the transportation of LNG by rail. Those cases, which have since been consolidated, was placed in abeyance in March by a federal judge at the request of the federal Department of Transportation as the LNG-by-rail rules are under review.

The special permit, which expires on Nov. 30, would be up for renewal under a new administration that appears to be taking, at the very least, a much more cautious approach to LNG by rail.

The special permit is not directly affected by whatever happens to the national rule because those two actions emerged through separate regulatory procedures, however critics of LNG-by-rail see them as connected under a single larger issue: Transporting liquified natural gas by rail is hazardous, unsafe and untested.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, one of the environmental groups involved in the litigation, said “logically” and “based on policy” the Biden administration should rescind the special permit “for the same public safety reasons they are suspending the federal authorization of LNG by rail.”

Bradley Marshall, a senior attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, which is also involved in the court case opposing the rule, said: “If LNG by rail is too dangerous to be transported in the rest of the nation (and it is given our current safety requirements), then it is also too dangerous to be transported in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”

Representatives of New Fortress Energy did not respond to an email for comment for this article. The PHMSA, citing the lingering litigation, declined to comment.

Notably, one of the documents made public as part of the work by the National Academies was a March 15, 2018, review by the Federal Railroad Administration of the special permit application by Energy Transportation Solutions.

That review was sharply critical of the risk analysis undertaken by the project sponsors. It said the special permit request “has many misstated facts, errors in scientific justifications and incorrect comparisons of hazardous materials to justify the application.”

The special permit was granted 13 months later.

Market forces pose other challenges

Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit organization financially supported by foundations, which tracks data about fossil fuels and energy alternatives, recently published a report, “Nervous Money: Global LNG Terminals Update 2021,” that painted a gloomy outlook for the LNG market.

The report noted that “the go-go atmosphere that characterized the LNG sector just two years ago now lies in what seems like the distant past.”

An August 2020 report by the trade publication, Natural Gas Intelligence, echoed that view.

It said: “The global gas supply glut and the coronavirus have combined to complicate the sanctioning and funding of newbuild LNG projects and expansions as financial institutions have been squeezed in the down economy. As a result, many projects have been delayed or canceled this year.”

Ted Nace, the executive director of Global Energy Monitor, said the United States, which began overseas shipments of LNG in 2016, is a relative late-comer to exporting LNG and trying to “muscle in” on the global market.

Countries like Qatar, the world’s largest LNG producer, and Russia, with a large natural gas supply, have access to vast inexpensive fields that give it huge competitive advantages over newcomers like the United States.

“Most of the projects in the U.S. that have been queued up – they’re not going to happen,” Nace said. “A whole bunch of these projects are no longer likely.”

He allowed that the Wyalusing/Gibbstown project could be small enough to survive. “The advantage they have is they’re not super, super huge, so maybe they have their market figured out,” he said.

The Global Energy Monitor report also noted there’s been a shift in attitudes about LNG in the face of climate change and environmental concerns.

“From the wellhead to the end user, the gas supply chain results in leakage of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas,” it said. “Due to mounting evidence that the magnitude of methane emissions is far greater than previously assumed, gas has shifted from the ‘solution’ side of the climate ledger to the ‘problem’ side.”

On July 6, New Fortress announced that it had secured an agreement for the LNG supply to cover its natural gas and electricity businesses through the end of 2027.

“With this gas supply in place, NFE will have purchased LNG volumes equal to approximately 100 percent of its expected needs for its current portfolio of five terminals and assets across the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America for the next six years,” the company said. “The company anticipates securing additional LNG supply volumes later in 2021 to support NFE’s four terminals in Brazil, which are all expected to be operational in 2022.”

It was not clear where – or if at all – the Wyalusing/Gibbstown project fit in to this announcement.

Other developments

There have been some bright spots for the New Fortress Energy project: In March, an affiliated company, Bradford County LNG Marketing, gained needed U.S. Department of Energy authorization to export LNG to Free Trade Nations under the Natural Gas Act. That authorization is good until 2050.

And a New Jersey appeals court rejected a challenge to the New Jersey

Department of Environmental Protection issuing a waterfront development permit and

water quality certificate to Delaware River Partners, another New Fortress Energy-related company, for what is known as Dock 2 at the Gibbstown port.

But other obstacles await.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network has gone to court to overturn a Delaware River Basin Commission ruling that helped paved the way for the project, and its case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, challenging a permit issued in February 2020 allowing the construction of the proposed new docking facilities remains pending.

Looming even larger are two other potentially more daunting issues:

The company and opponents are awaiting decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on whether it will assert jurisdiction over the project. If it does, that could set off environmental assessments that could consider the ecological, cultural and human impacts of the project.

That, in turn, could also mean opportunities for litigation to challenge the quality and thoroughness of those reviews – all of which could amount to added time, scrutiny and chances for the project to be delayed or derailed.

In what some interpreted as a signal about the way the commission might rule on the Wyalusing/Gibbstown project, FERC said in March that it had jurisdiction of an unrelated LNG facility in Puerto Rico run by New Fortress Energy.

The other issue facing the company is logistical.

As Delaware Currents has previously reported, too few of the specialized rail tankers that New Fortress would depend on to transport LNG exist, there is little interest among manufacturers to build them and they can cost as much as $750,000 per tanker to build – all of which raises questions about how likely the company is to hit its 2022 start-up goal.

Meg McGuire, founder of Delaware Currents, is honored by PennFuture

Meg McGuire, the founder, publisher and editor of Delaware Currents, an online news magazine dedicated to covering the Delaware River and its watershed, has been named PennFuture’s 2021 Woman of Environmental Media, Marketing and Communications.

The recognition honors a person who has established herself as “a credible source for presenting the public with information about climate, water issues, environmental stories and conservation-related current events.” The honoree can be a reporter, blogger, campaign organizer, NGO communications employee or a communications/social media volunteer.

McGuire founded Delaware Currents, a nonprofit news outlet, in 2015. Its mission? “We are better custodians of the river when we understand the river. All voices are welcome to this conversation.”

The site is dedicated to telling the stories of the river from its headwaters in the Catskill Mountains of New York to the Delaware Bay, where it meets the ocean.

At a time when legacy newsrooms in community and larger news outlets have dramatically shrunk and resources dedicated to environmental beats have all but disappeared, Delaware Currents stands out.

It is the only news source entirely dedicated to spotlighting news of the ecology, people, commerce and protection of the 330-mile river and a watershed that spans four states, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. McGuire is also almost always the only news reporter serving as a watchdog to the activities of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Delaware Currents tells deeply reported, explanatory stories of the river that readers will not find anywhere else, such as the important role of dissolved oxygen and the Atlantic sturgeon, holding the state and federal governments accountable for their contributions to the Delaware River Basin Commission’s budget and explaining the complex moving parts behind a plan to export liquified natural gas from a river port.

McGuire’s prodding and birddog reporting is credited with the creation of a Congressional Delaware River Watershed Caucus that would look out for the basin’s interests.

“I deeply appreciate PennFuture’s recognition of my work,” said McGuire, who lives in Pike County, Pa. “Delaware Currents hosts an intelligent conversation about the river’s future, understanding that there is a natural tug-of-war among its stakeholders and that no one person, organization or business has all the answers.”

PennFuture works to protect public health, restore and protect natural resources and move Pennsylvania toward a clean energy future.

Each year, its Celebrating Women in Conservation Awards honor the accomplishments of women conservationists in Pennsylvania. The awards seek to forge a strong network of women committed to protecting Pennsylvania’s environment.

The 2021 awards celebration, on Sept. 9, will be a virtual/live hybrid online event in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Nominations were considered from: Bradford, Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuylkill, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming counties.

Other honorees include:

  • Young Woman of Conservation Leadership: Hannah Burke of Schuylkill County, who is a senior at Blue Mountain Area High School and chief executive of Best Buds All Natural Gardening
  • Woman of the Environmental Arts: Kelly Finan of Lackawanna County, a science illustrator/designer whose clients include the Children’s Discovery Museum, Clean Oceans International and Harvard University
  • Woman of the Watershed: Elissa Garofalo of Carbon County, who is executive director for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor and a board member of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas
  • Woman of Environmental Justice: Rashida Lovely of Lackawanna County, who created the “Science in the Summer” programs for underprivileged families and promotes teaching black/brown/underserved communities how to value the environment
  • Woman of Climate and Renewable Energy: Diana Dakey of Lackawanna County, who is a volunteer advocate for the environment and good government, through Protect Northern PA, PennFuture and League of Women Voters of Lackawanna County,
  • Woman of Environmental Education: Dr. Jessica Nolan of Lackawanna County, who is professor of Conservation Psychology and director of the Environmental Studies Concentration at the University of Scranton and founder of Green Drinks Scranton
  • Woman of Lifetime Achievement in Conservation: Marian Keegan of Pike County, who is president of Grey Towers Heritage Association and director of Community Conservation at Hemlock Farms Community Association
  • Woman of Lifetime Achievement in Conservation: Dr. Laurie Goodrich of Schuylkill County, who leads Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s local-to-global research and professional training programs as its Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science and who co-published Hawk Mountain’s first scientific paper on raptor migration trends
  • Woman of Lifetime Achievement in Conservation: Heidi Secord of Monroe County, who is state president and board chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union and a board member of the National Farmers Union and former board member for the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations
  • Posthumous Woman of Lifetime Achievement in Conservation: Louise Dunlap (1946-2021), who was a vital liaison between the PA Abandoned Mine Land Campaign, legislators and staffers in Washington, D.C., who helped to advance the Reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund and the RECLAIM Act. She served on the boards of the League of Conservation Voters, the Clean Water Fund, Scenic America, the Environmental Policy Institute and the National Clean Air Coalition.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of PennEast Pipeline’s Use of Eminent Domain

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a company behind a proposed Pennsylvania-to-New Jersey natural gas pipeline has the authority to use eminent domain to acquire lands controlled by New Jersey for the project.

The justices ruled 5-4 that the PennEast Pipeline can initiate condemnation proceedings against the state for the 116-mile project, which would send Marcellus shale natural gas from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania to Mercer County in New Jersey.

The high court’s ruling, while a significant hurdle cleared, is far from the last.

The planned pipeline, which has been in the works for at least six years, continues to make its way through layers of regulatory reviews and remains steadfastly opposed by environmental groups and others.

Nonetheless, the company in a statement hailed the court’s ruling on Tuesday.

Anthony Cox, chairman of the PennEast board of managers, said New Jersey had brought the case for political purposes.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court kept intact more than seven decades of legal precedent for the families and businesses who benefit from more affordable, reliable energy,” he said.

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the federal government through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could constitutionally confer on pipeline companies the authority to condemn rights-of-way on properties in which a state claimed an interest.

Specifically, a provision made to the Natural Gas Act in 1947 authorized companies that had gained FERC’s approval to condemn all necessary rights-of-way, whether owned by private parties or states, said the majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

It is undisputed that the provision was passed “specifically to solve the problem of states impeding interstate pipeline development by withholding access to their own eminent domain procedures,” Roberts wrote. “And it was understood both at the time the provision was enacted and over the following decades that states’ property interests would be subject to condemnation.”

The opinion offered a history lesson about the use of eminent domain and the nation’s system of pipelines.

“For as long as the eminent domain power has been exercised by the United States, it has also been delegated to private parties,” Roberts wrote. “It was commonplace before and after the founding for the colonies and then the states to authorize the private condemnation of land for a variety of public works.”

The ruling noted that the federal government, though its delegates, has “exercised the eminent domain power to give effect to that vision, connecting our country through turnpikes, bridges, and railroads — and more recently pipelines, telecommunications infrastructure, and electric transmission facilities.”

Roberts was joined by conservative justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, and liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

PennEast sought to condemn two parcels over which New Jersey asserted possession and 40 parcels in which the state had other claims, such as conservation easements.

New Jersey and others argued that the states’ sovereign immunity prevented the condemnation proceedings.

Further, they argued, even if such proceedings were constitutionally permitted, the language in the 1947 provision to the Natural Gas Act was not clear enough to allow such actions.

Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has been a leading opponent of the pipeline, said in a statement that it was “so disturbing that the profit-making goals of a private pipeline corporation would be given greater respect and protection than the rights of states and people.”

She said the network has multiple challenges pending in federal court and that the project still requires the approvals of New Jersey and Pennsylvania regulators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The company’s initial application before the commission was withdrawn on Jan. 30, 2020, after it filed an amended version with FERC.

The new approach splits the project into two phases, with a plan to work on the Pennsylvania side first. The latest version does not yet include a crossing of the Delaware River as part of its plan.

Federal judge dismisses fracking lawsuit brought by 2 Pa. state lawmakers

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by two Pennsylvania Republican state lawmakers against the Delaware River Basin Commission in which they claimed a moratorium the agency imposed on fracking for natural gas was a regulatory overreach.

The suit, which was brought by state Senators Gene Yaw and Lisa Baker, said a 2009 moratorium imposed by the commission’s then executive director, Carol Collier, amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of private and public property.

The moratorium paused fracking, the process of using high-volume hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from underground rock formations, while the commission drafted regulations about the practice, which it worried would have adverse effects on the environment.

The ban extended to the entire watershed, which covers parts of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, but particularly affected were those Pennsylvania counties that are home to the nation’s largest gas field in the Marcellus Shale formation.

In February, the commission finally adopted formal rules banning fracking.

“For present purposes, these contentions are quite beside the point and underscore that this dispute is essentially political and so best resolved by the political branches of government.”

Judge Paul S. Diamond for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Intervening defendants, including Bucks and Montgomery Counties, a collection of Pennsylvania Democratic senators, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and its executive director, Maya K. van Rossum, argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the court action.

A judge agreed.

The judge, Paul S. Diamond for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said the issues needed to be addressed in the halls of government and not a courtroom.

“Parties hotly debated fracking’s benefits and harms,” he wrote. “For present purposes, these contentions are quite beside the point and underscore that this dispute is essentially political and so best resolved by the political branches of government.”

The judge dismissed arguments that the plaintiffs, which also included the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus, Damascus and Dyberry Townships and Wayne and Carbon Counties, were harmed.

Baker and Yaw agued, in part, that state law vests them with interest enough to confer standing and that they were “trustees” under the Pennsylvania Environmental Rights Amendment.

The judge said those theories were “novel” but “meritless.”

“Although all plaintiffs argue vigorously that they have standing, they do not,” Diamond wrote.

Among the claims the lawmakers and others made: A group of landowners in Wayne County had spent $750,000 in legal fees to negotiate a fracking lease before the moratorium but that it was terminated after it went into effect.

The judge said a complaint was “repleted with allegations” that the DRBC and the state government had harmed citizens but ultimately failed to back up those assertions.

Diamond said the municipalities might be able to articulate how they were harmed by the moratorium and allowed them to file an amended complaint, leaving a strand of the case unresolved.

It was not clear if the plaintiffs would appeal Diamond’s ruling. The offices of Baker and Yaw and a lawyer who represented them and the caucus did not respond to emails seeking comment.

“We are pleased, but not surprised” that the judge dismissed the case, van Rossum of the Riverkeeper Network said in a statement. The DRBC declined to comment.

The ruling brings mostly to a close at least one case that challenged the DRBC over the moratorium while a separate but related suit remains pending.

The senators filed their lawsuit in January after trying unsuccessfully to intervene in a case filed in 2016 by Wayne Land and Mineral Group that raised similar issues concerning the commission’s moratorium.

In that case, both sides agreed last month to pause the case, which was originally scheduled to go to a non-jury trial in October.

Both sides are due to file a joint report to the court every six months about the status of legal challenges to fracking in the river basin and about whether they believe the stay should remain in place.

The commission maintains in court filings that the Mineral Group suit is now moot and the case should be dismissed after it adopted regulations banning fracking in the watershed.

What effect, if any, the dismissal of the suit brought by Yaw and Baker will have on the Mineral Group’s case is unclear.

A lawyer for the group, Christopher R. Nestor, noted that the judge in the lawmakers’ case allowed the municipalities a chance to file an amended complaint.

“Also, we do not know whether the parties will seek to appeal the dismissal to the Third Circuit,” he said. “As such, we believe it is premature to discuss next steps for our pending DRBC case, which is currently stayed by stipulation of the parties.”

Gibbstown LNG Dock 1 got Coast Guard’s “Letter of Recommendation”
Letter dated Dec. 18, 2019

A port in Gibbstown, N.J., that will play a pivotal role in a plan to transport liquified natural gas from Pennsylvania and export it to foreign markets via the Delaware River has gained a critical endorsement from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2019, Delaware Currents has confirmed.

The Coast Guard’s “Letter of Recommendation” for the Repauno Port and Rail Terminal in Gibbstown to handle LNG as well as liquified petroleum gas is a significant hurdle cleared by the applicants.

The Coast Guard previously would not say whether it had issued the letter, which Delaware Currents recently gained through a New Jersey Open Public Records Act request from Gloucester County, N.J.

The project, which is being backed by subsidiaries or related companies of New Fortress Energy, has many moving parts and has been subjected to reviews and approvals of nearly two dozen local, state and federal agencies.

It has drawn national attention, both from backers of LNG and detractors, who worry about the environmental and public safety hazards of the project.

Key among those agencies reviewing the project has been the Coast Guard, which, because of its jurisdiction over the Delaware Bay and River, needed to issue a “Letter of Recommendation.”

Specifically, the agency had to review a detailed assessment filed by the project sponsor, Delaware River Partners, an affiliate of New Fortress, to ensure that it would comply with federal regulations related to waterfront facilities handling LNG.

The letter is not an approval per se as much as it is a recommendation to the appropriate jurisdictional authorities that the waterway is suitable for an increase in LPG and LNG traffic, provided certain conditions are met.

Among the letter’s highlights:

  • The intended route for the LNG/LPG carriers would take them 86.5 nautical miles through the Delaware River and Bay from the Repauno port, under the Delaware Memorial and Commodore-Barry Bridges, past Chester, Pa., and Wilmington, Del.
  • Security measures would be enforced and a “Restricted Navigation Area” put in place while ships carrying LNG or LPG were in transit in the area.
  • LNG would be delivered to Repauno by truck and pumped directly from a transportation tank truck to an LNG vessel. Repauno is expected to have an LNG export capacity of 20 million barrels per year. The size of LNG vessels is expected to be 830,000 barrels, with an estimated loading time of 15 days.
  • All aspects of the waterway route were evaluated including “tides and currents, prevailing weather, density and character of marine traffic, deep draft vessel management, recreational boating, navigational aids (buoys, markers etc.), surrounding community impacts, and relevant environmental considerations.”

The letter touted “an excellent 50-year safety record” of LPG transport on the Delaware and said that specialized LNG/LPG carriers are “built to specific regulatory standards and are operated only by specially trained and proficient captains and crews.”

Oddly, the letter, which is dated Dec. 18, 2019, makes no mention of the transportation of LNG by rail – only by highway tankers.

Further it says Delaware River Partners “proposes to site, construct, and operate a multi-use, single berth, deep-water port and logistics center that may include a variety of separate uses, including handling of imported and exported automobiles, other bulk freight and liquid energy products including, but not limited to LNG and LPG.”

The letter is silent about a second dock with two deep-water berths that would require the dredging of approximately 665,000 cubic yards of sediment. That second dock was part of a project approved by the Delaware River Basin Commission in December.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Katie Blue, clarified that the existing letter of recommendation is in effect and that there were no pending updates to it.

At the time of the Coast Guard’s review, there was only a single dock, No. 1, and no application for a second dock. The letter addressed only the capacity – and export limits — of what was available via the single dock. 

“The current Letter of Recommendation was issued after the review of the initial Letter of Intent, which included only one berth,” Blue said.

How the potential use of a second dock might affect the Coast Guard’s letter of recommendation is unclear.  

If there are changes that result in an increase in the size and/or frequency of LNG or LPG marine traffic on the waterway, Delaware River Partners would have to update its assessment, Blue added, without indicating whether such an update would prompt further review.

The letter is another regulatory hurdle cleared by the project, which proposes to take fracked gas sent via pipeline to a liquification plant in Wyalusing, Pa., where it would be cooled to 260 degrees below zero and then sent by rail and/or highway to Gibbstown.

Some elements of the project are in litigation but perhaps the largest remaining regulatory hurdle is whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency will claim jurisdiction over the project.

New Fortress has sought to have FERC disclaim jurisdiction. A full-fledged FERC review could set off environmental assessments that could consider the ecological, cultural and human impacts of the project.

That, in turn, could also mean opportunities for litigation to challenge the quality and thoroughness of those reviews – all of which could amount to added time, scrutiny and chances for the project to be delayed or derailed.

 

First Responders: Prepared for LNG Emergencies? The Evidence Is Not Reassuring

Hazardous materials regularly roll through Northeastern Pennsylvania communities by rail and road and it’s left to local first responders to be ready for when things go wrong.

Haz-mat incidents vary in degrees of danger, records show. Commonly, crews are called to overturned trucks leaking diesel fuel. Infrequently, there are more serious incidents, such as a chlorine leak at a water plant, a broken mercury thermometer or a potentially lethal gas unleashed from a mix of household cleaners.

And sometimes calls can take unexpected turns.

In Bucks County, a call about a suspicious container turned out to be rancid soup. A suspicious package left on the steps of a church held the remains of a pet bird. And in October 2019, a decontamination trailer in Wayne County was called to a report of a yellow-brown substance found in an envelope: It was toast crumbs.

None of those experiences can stack up to the potentially catastrophic hazards posed by the large-scale transportation of liquified natural gas from Pennsylvania to New Jersey as planned by the energy giant New Fortress Energy.

There is little to suggest that local first responders are prepared, either.

A Delaware Currents investigation has found:

  • There has been no communication from New Fortress with local emergency services about the project, which raises serious questions about awareness and readiness for trains expected to carry as much as 3 million gallons of LNG at a time nearly 200 miles from Pennsylvania into New Jersey.
  • New Fortress has publicly said it expects the project to be running by early 2022, but records show there’s been no outreach about training the dozens of emergency agencies that dot the route that LNG rail and highway tankers would follow.
  • Though fire officials emphasize they’re ready for anything, experts caution that volunteer firefighters can be overwhelmed and often put on a brave face to assure the public that everything is under control.

As one fire chief described responding to the unknowns of an LNG explosion: “Ya’ll dial 911 and here we come running with our lights and sirens. We’re going to save the world. Well, that’s not how it is really.”

Awareness? What awareness?

New Fortress Energy proposes to haul the super-cooled natural gas from a plant in Wyalusing, Pa., to a Delaware River port in Gibbstown, N.J. 

The company has not publicly disclosed its routes but a map created by the FracTracker Alliance shows various paths could potentially cut through as many as 18 Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties,15 of them in the Delaware River watershed.

The project would mean up to 100 LNG rail cars and as many as 400 highway tankers per day snaking through or near densely populated communities, such as Allentown, Reading, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and sections of Philadelphia and its suburbs. 

“We don’t know about that project. We know very little about that.”

Eugene Dziak, the emergency manager for Wyoming County, Pa.

Critics fear the sheer volume of LNG in transit and what could go wrong if the specialized cryogenic tankers were breached in a derailment.

If an LNG vapor cloud ignited, an explosion could send projectiles hundreds of feet as well as set off a fire that can burn as high as 2,426 degrees – more than twice the flame temperature of gasoline. The thermal radiation from such an explosion could cause second-degree burns in as little as 30 seconds.

LNG vapor clouds can travel great distances and are especially dangerous if trapped in confined spaces, such as culverts, tunnels or between buildings. Further, water cannot be used to extinguish an LNG fire. It has to burn itself out, which can, depending on its size, take days.

Project supporters and federal regulators who issued a special permit to allow LNG by rail maintain that the mandated tankers are up to the task and have a sound safety record while opponents fear that a catastrophic event known as BLEVE — Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion — could wipe out an entire city.

“For me, on the scale of worry, it’s an eight or a nine.”

-Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management

How much the project is on the radar of county or local emergency responders is difficult to thoroughly assess but if public records and interviews are any guide, the answer would be not at all.

Delaware Currents made public records requests in mid-January of the 18 New Jersey and Pennsylvania counties that make up the potential rail and highway routes, seeking any correspondences to or from New Fortress Energy about the project.

Specifically, were there any records dating from 2019 to or from the counties’ emergency planners and Local Emergency Planning Committees about coordination, training or awareness about the LNG project? No, they said. (Philadelphia was the only one to deny the records request, which is being appealed. Gloucester County, N.J., has had communications about the Delaware River port that touched on the LNG shipments. See sidebar.)

What about the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, whose highways and bridges LNG tanker trucks would travel? Did it have any correspondences about the project’s route?

None.

Or what about the Delaware River Port Authority, which runs the Commodore Barry Bridge, which would be the bridge spanning the Delaware River that would be primarily used for hundreds of LNG tankers per day. Did it have any records about the project?

Nothing.

Given a proposed project of this size, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency would almost certainly have records about emergency planning or first responder training, right?

Nope.

Told of the lack of communications with emergency planners, Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management, said, “For me, on the scale of worry, it’s an eight or a nine.”

Duane Hagelgans, an associate professor at the Center for Disaster Research & Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said it might be that New Fortress has not reached out because the project is not yet operational.

However, the first responder community is usually aware of projects like this one from the starting gate, he said. “Typically, we have it on our radar before they go past ‘go,’” he said.

Evidence of how little awareness there has been among public officials surfaced in an email exchange with Tunkhannock Township, Pa.

Of all the communities on the Wyalusing-to-Gibbstown route, that township, which is in Wyoming County, is one of the communities where both LNG trucks and rail cars would most intensely pass through.

When Delaware Currents asked about emergency preparations related to the LNG project, the municipal secretary replied: “I think you have the wrong Tunkhannock Township. There are two of us. One in Wyoming Co. and the other one is in Monroe Co.”

Ready — or not

As far back as 2005, the National Association of State Fire Marshals warned, “Fire officials must prepare now and become well versed on LNG so that they are ready to address emerging issues concerning community safety.”

But have they?

It’s a question that resonates far beyond New Jersey and Pennsylvania because federal regulators have given blanket permission nationally for LNG to be transported by rail, meaning emergency responders are likely to face new, unfamiliar situations involving the super-cooled gas.

“A deficient emergency response is more often the rule than the exception.”

-Carolyn W. Merritt, chairwoman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, testifying before the Senate

The National Fire Protection Association warned that adding a flammable cryogenic material, like LNG, to current high-hazard flammable train shipments “posed further challenges to the capabilities and resources for local responders.”

Federal regulators have acknowledged that LNG response training is available for fixed facilities but that “the currently available training is not specific to rail transportation.”

Tankers carrying LNG would regularly pass through Kingston, Pa. The fire chief of the Kingston/Forty Fort Fire Department said he had not heard about the New Fortress Energy project but said his department was haz-mat certified every year

In the special permit granted to New Fortress, regulators required the company to train emergency agencies about LNG rail accidents.

“(Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) does not anticipate a situation where an emergency response agency will be unaware of how to respond to an incident involving a train transporting LNG subject to this special permit,” regulators confidently wrote.

But how much of that was wishful thinking?

LNG awareness aside, the level of hazardous material training and expertise appears to vary widely by jurisdiction, with a local patchwork ranging from fairly sophisticated to rudimentary, public records show.

“Transportation keeps me up at night. We don’t do offsite emergency plans for an intersection when an accident or rollover can occur.”

George Wilson, member of the Bucks County Local Emergency Planning Committee, in 2019

Delaware Currents wrote to a sampling of New Jersey and Pennsylvania fire departments in communities where LNG tankers would pass through or near by rail or road.

Thirty-nine departments were asked, among other things, how much they had heard about the project and their state of training and readiness for LNG.

Only two replied. Frank Guido, the fire chief of the Kingston/Forty Fort Fire Department in Luzerne County, Pa., said he had heard nothing about the project

Highway Map Final

Rory Koons, the president and safety officer for the Aquashicola Volunteer Fire Company in Palmerton, Pa., also said he had heard nothing.

“The transporting of LNG through rural areas along with populated communities poses many risks and dangers for both residents and emergency responders,” he said “I am confident the regulatory agencies will require the transports to be built to the highest federal standards with safety being paramount. Nevertheless, that will not alleviate the dangers in an unfortunate accident.”

Eugene Dziak, the emergency manager for Wyoming County, Pa., expressed confidence.

“Those containers are manufactured with more safety devices than anybody can imagine,” he said. “We’re ready but I’m not overly concerned.”

And Lucy Morgan, the director of emergency management in Luzerne County, Pa., said she did not know much about it.

“It’s absolutely a concern but hopefully we are prepared for any situation,” she said. “We would handle it like any other emergency.”

New Fortress did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“Being prepared for LNG is another product we will have to plan for, and be prepared for, in our arsenal of response,” said Rory Koons, the president and safety officer for the Aquashicola Volunteer Fire Company in Palmerton, Pa.

Projecting preparedness is ‘window dressing’

Even the most experienced of fire officials have found themselves challenged responding to LNG accidents.

Lonnie E. Click, a fire chief in Benton County in southern Washington, was the incident commander at the most serious LNG accident in recent American history, which happened in Plymouth, Wash., in 2014, when an explosion tore through a liquified natural gas storage facility.

Click had had extensive experience leading responses to major natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes and landslides.

But LNG? That was new to him.

“There were these two big huge tanks that I was on a crash course of learning all about LNG one morning at 8:30 because I really didn’t know anything about it,” he recalled at a 2016 conference.

Hagelgans said it is not necessarily a matter of career vs. volunteer firefighters that will make a difference in the case of an LNG accident.

“Any fire department – from the biggest to the smallest – if you have a major accident with hazardous materials, they’re going to be tested,” he said.

In some cases, urban departments might have the resources but a lot of residents to look out for while rural departments might lack the resources but have fewer residents to worry about.

Hardy, of Hytropy Disaster Management, said responders overestimate their abilities and put on a good face about being prepared no matter what the circumstances.

“It can be a lot of window dressing,” he said. “‘We’re prepared. Don’t even worry about it.’”

Emergency managers take that position because they don’t want to face political heat and also because elected officials often want simply yes/no answers to complex problems.

Because the Wyalusing-to-Gibbstown project spans multiple counties as well as two states, it’s more likely that politics, interpersonal relationships and turf battles will get in the way.

Hardy said planning is critical but if there is no training to back it up, then the planning is useless, and if there are no drills to reinforce the planning and training, then they’re both useless. Compounding the issue is that hazardous materials drills are expensive and difficult to run, he said.

“You can have the best plan, but if you don’t train, then what you have is a paperweight,” Hagelgans said.

Even when training is offered, it’s no guarantee that firefighters – particularly those who are volunteers with other life commitments – are going to be able to attend because they’ll need to take unpaid leave from work, a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted.

With volunteers staffing fire departments and ambulance corps, turnover is inevitable and it becomes more challenging to train people and deepen their experience, Hardy said. Nearly 97 percent of Pennsylvania’s fire departments are all or mostly volunteer, and the vast majority of the routes the LNG will travel are through areas staffed by volunteers.

“The whole emergency response community is a bit of a con game because they rarely talk about their vulnerabilities,” said Fred Millar, an independent railway and hazardous materials transportation expert, who emphasized the need to work on preventing a disaster in the first place.

“What is the likelihood of there being an accident? That’s a difficult thing to judge. There is a likelihood of some incident at some point.”

-Samantha L. Montano, an assistant professor at the Emergency Management Department at Massachusetts Maritime Academy

“How can we have a good level of concern and preparedness and funding if you’re told all the time that ‘We’ve got this covered. We’re prepared. No big deal,’” Millar said.

That kind of bravado attitude was in evidence at a November 2019 gathering of first responders hosted by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Federal Emergency Management and the U.S. Fire Administration in Lancaster County, Pa., to discuss emergency preparedness related to the transportation of LNG by rail.

A report from the meeting seemed to downplay concerns.

“There was no particular heightened concern expressed regarding the proposed rail transport of LNG because the hazardous materials preparedness community was already well oriented to the challenges of LNG incident response in other transportation modes and fixed facility environments,” it said.

Notably, of the 18 Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties that could be affected by the New Fortress project, only six were represented at the meeting, records show.

LNG by rail: Unknown territory

Hardy said LNG has for years been transported by marine vessels and highway tankers and that it has enjoyed a strong safety record. But transporting it by rail changes the equation.

Rail Map Final

Responding to rail derailments differs vastly from highway crashes because railroads are often accessible only on unpaved, rough roads that ambulances and fire trucks are ill-equipped to traverse, he said. 

Click, who was incident commander at the Plymouth explosion, said it’s paramount to pay close attention to vulnerable spots, such as uncontrolled railroad crossings, trestles and staying up on track and train maintenance.

Allan M. Zarembski, a professor of practice and director of the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware, wrote a report in 2015 with recommendations for improving safety of rail transport of crude oil in Pennsylvania.

“I think the big railroads – Norfolk Southern, CSX – are really well-prepared to handle the hazardous materials,” he said. “The short lines? The answer is, I don’t know.”

He said short line rails might not have access to the latest technology – such as ultrasonic and track geometry testing – to guard against damage to the rails.

The majority of the “nastiest” headline-grabbing derailments have historically been caused by track conditions, Zarembski added.

Emergency response guidelines recommend evacuations of a mile in all directions in the event of an LNG rail tanker or truck fire but effective evacuations can be a tall order.

“Evacuation is something we fail at most in emergency management because it’s a challenge to get people to adhere to many times,” Hagelgans said. Even using modern tools to transmit warnings, such as text messaging and reverse 911 calls, “doesn’t mean people are going to leave.”

And then there is the sheer scale and logistics of evacuations: what routes to take, where to send people, addressing special-needs facilities, such as nursing homes, and how to move people quickly in densely packed places like metro Philadelphia.

Amanda Savitt, a disaster researcher, said it’s harder when emergency managers or the alerting authorities don’t have a good understanding of the hazardous materials passing through their communities.

For instance, in the case of a Casselton, N.D., crude oil train disaster in 2013, emergency managers did not know what risks there were to the public and issued a voluntary evacuation message instead of a direct order.

“It’s helpful if you’re not having to write the message and figure out the protective action as the event is happening,” she said. “Having a good knowledge of what the hazard is and the protective action decision is super important.”

Click said local responders need to have “very, very explicit planning” and pre-planning that accounts for critical evacuation routes, reverse-911 notifications and how to access an accident scene.

“You’re going to have an accident at some point in time,” he said. “You can’t say never. Never never happens. At some point in time, something is going to happen.”


Gloucester County Addresses the Repauno Port

Emails reveal extensive conversations among Gloucester County, N.J., emergency planners, fire officials and Ken Charron, the vice president of law for Delaware River Partners, one of the entities behind the LNG project.

The volume of communications, which were secured through a public records request, likely reflects that the county is home to the high-profile facility in Gibbstown that would export the LNG via the Delaware River.  

The communications touched on the LNG project and cast a rosy outlook about plans for the port.

Dennis P. McNulty, coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management for Gloucester County wrote to Charron on Oct. 3, 2018, about preparing the site’s emergency response plan.

“I think it’s safe to say we were all impressed with the work going at the port,” McNulty wrote. “The scale of your envisioned operations are extraordinary, and we’re pleased to join your team’s preparedness efforts.”

And in a May 5, 2019, email to Robert Van Fossen, the director of emergency management for the state Department of Environmental Protection, McNulty wrote, “I appreciate that Ken (Charron), on behalf of Delaware River Partners/Repauno Port & Rail Terminal, is continuing to demonstrate an understanding and apparent commitment to a collaborative preparedness planning.”

A July 3, 2019 email from McNulty to Charron: “My interest is to be sure these drills/exercises reflect how a response to an incident at your facility would & should occur based on existing or, to be developed plans/procedures. This is particularly important were an actual incident to be of such magnitude that the coordination of responding assets (fire & others) are managed effectively and again, in accordance with plans in place.”

An Oct. 18, 2019, email alluded to meetings and coordination with the Infrastructure Security Unit of the New Jersey State Police, the state’s protective security adviser, the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and local police and fire officials.

And in a Jan. 3, 2020, email, McNulty wrote Van Fossen that an exercise involving a rail accident scenario would be a good idea “given the industrial development taking place and the hazards/risks associated with that growth.”

The county has had a history of rail incident, he added. “Perhaps such an exercise would be a good opportunity to demonstrate what lessons were learned?” 

LNG From Pennsylvania to New Jersey: 400 Tanker Trucks a Day

A plan to bring liquified natural gas from Wyalusing, Pa., to a port in Gibbstown, N.J., has focused largely on the potential hazards of transporting as much as 3 million gallons of the highly flammable product at a time by rail.

But the project sponsor also has plans to send as many as 400 tanker trucks per day, each carrying 10,000 gallons of LNG, crisscrossing Pennsylvania and New Jersey roadways, passing through or near small cities and communities with congested roads.

That’s significant given that project proponents, federal government and risk evaluators of the LNG-by-rail project have repeatedly said that the likelihood of a failure of an MC-338 cryogenic highway tanker is greater than that of a specialized rail tanker. 

The Route 309 overpass in Luzerne, which is one of dozens of communities that LNG tanker trucks would pass on their nearly 200-mile journey to a port on the Delaware River. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

From 1994 through 2005, hazardous materials released in railroad accidents resulted in 14 deaths, Joseph H. Boardman, who was then the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testified in 2006. 

By comparison, hazardous materials released in highway accidents during the same period resulted in more than eight times as many deaths, he said.

A 2019 transportation impact assessment filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on behalf of the project sponsor, New Fortress Energy, revealed that the Wyalusing plant would be staffed by three shifts of workers, run 24 hours a day and feature 800 truck trips daily – half of which are expected to be loaded with LNG and with  the other half expected to be making return trips empty.

If an LNG tanker were breached and a vapor cloud ignited, an explosion could send projectiles hundreds of feet as well as set off a fire that can burn as high as 2,426 degrees – more than twice the flame temperature of gasoline.

Jennifer Wynn of South Abington, Pa., lives less than a mile from one potential route for the LNG tankers.

“One truck overturns in our town — who knows what danger there would be?” she said. “It’s unfathomable to me.”

She said Routes 6 and 11 in Clarks Summit are already congested and brimming with restaurants and businesses that would be in harm’s way if something went wrong. At 400 trucks per day, she said, “Statistically, there is bound to be an accident, right?”

Local roads not immune to crashes

New Fortress has not publicly released its rail and highway routes, but a  map compiled by FracTracker Alliance and published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network reveals the likeliest two paths for each.

The highway routes vary from winding rural roads, congested narrow local streets, highways and routes through densely populated communities.

Among the communities the routes would pass through or near: Chester, Clarks Summit, Dallas, Dunmore, Factoryville, Glenburn, Kingston, Luzerne, Meshoppen, Parryville, Tunkhannock in Wyoming County, West Conshohocken and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, and Logan and Greenwich townships in New Jersey.

Hundreds of tanker trucks carrying LNG would travel on Route 309 near Luzerne, Pa., among other places on their way from Wyalusing, Pa., to Gibbstown, N.J. PHOTO BY CHRIS MELE

Highway tankers leaving Wyalusing would travel Route 6 in Bradford County, a 33-mile section of road that has recorded 488 crashes, or an average of two per week, from 2015-19, according to PennDOT data

The section of Route 6 that extends into Wyoming County for another 10 miles has recorded an average of 79 crashes per year in that same period, state figures show.

One of those crashes involved a tractor-trailer carrying liquid propane that left the road, ripped out about 100 feet of guardrail and went down a steep embankment in Meshoppen Township in March 2019. The driver was seriously injured but no leak occurred, according to PennDOT.

Few crashes and zero “violent explosive” releases

A 2004 article in The Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries suggested that ground transportation of LNG has had a sound safety record.

It said an “exhaustive survey” of the Major Hazard Incident Data Service found 12,179 accidents had occurred up to July 2003 and that of those, four involving LNG happened on the road with none resulting in a release or fire.

And a 2016 estimate by the U.S. National Response Team found that in the previous 15 years, there had been six reportable incidents of highway crashes involving LNG, with none resulting in a fire or “violent explosive release.”

However, Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management, was unsure.

He said he was not familiar with the LNG highway route in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but cautioned: “Every single mile that truck is on the road, that could be another mile where there could be an accident or a release.”

Highway hazards 

Transporting LNG by highway does not require the kinds of special permits and intense federal review needed to transport LNG by rail

Of more than 700 motor carriers, 18 transport LNG using cryogenic cargo tank trailers in the United States, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Transportation report.

Overseas and in the United States, some tanker crashes have made headlines after things went spectacularly wrong and some of those cases have even been the subjects of academic studies:

On June 22, 2002, near Tivissa, Spain: An LNG tanker lost control going downhill, tipped over and flames immediately appeared between the cabin and trailer. About 20 minutes later, there was a small explosion, a strong hiss and then a much larger explosion, The Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries reported.

“The explosion was very violent, breaking the tank and the truck into several pieces, distorting some of them considerably, ejecting them over considerable distances and causing a pressure wave,” it said.

On June 22, 2002, near Tivissa, Spain, an LNG tanker lost control going downhill, tipped over and immediately burst into flames. About 20 minutes later, there was a small explosion, a strong hiss and then a much larger explosion. PHOTO CREDIT Journal of Loss Prevention

The driver died and two people suffered burns. The fireball was so immense that those who were injured were more than 650 feet away – a distance greater than the height of the Space Needle in Seattle.

Jerry Havens, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas who has decades of experience in LNG safety, wrote in an analysis filed with federal regulators that the rear part of the tank, including the rear undercarriage of the truck, was ejected 260 feet.

He wrote that mathematical modeling suggested that the fireball, which lasted about 12 seconds, was about 500 feet in diameter and 370 feet in height. 

That means the fireball was about four times the diameter and roughly three times the height of a popular Ferris wheel model.

Mathematical modeling suggested that the fireball from the tanker was about 500 feet in diameter and 370 feet high.PHOTO CREDIT Journal of Loss Prevention

On Sept. 14, 2005, in Fernley, Nevada: A tanker with about 10,000 gallons of LNG started to leak, causing the product to evaporate as soon as it hit the air, “creating a white natural gas cloud,” according to an incident report by the Fire Department in Sparks, Nev. 

The vapor then caught fire, producing heat so intense, that firefighters relocated about a half-mile and moved farther back “several times, finally staging approximately one mile from the scene,” the report said. 

Businesses were evacuated, a nearby highway was shut down and the fire burned for more than 30 hours, according to news accounts.

Fire officials said static electricity likely ignited the vapor cloud but they could not verify that theory because of a lack of physical evidence, The Leader-Courier reported.

After a vapor cloud of LNG has been released, firefighters need to be mindful of hidden ignition sources, such as the internal combustion engines of fire trucks, passing vehicles and even gas meters with batteries that may create a spark, a 2016 article in International Fire Fighter magazine warned. 

On Oct. 20, 2011, in Zarzalico, Spain: A tanker carrying LNG rear-ended a truck that was pulled over on the highway’s shoulder. A fire quickly erupted, killing the tanker driver, according to a study by the Center for Studies on Technological Risk in Barcelona

“Moments before the explosion, a shrill whistle from the tank was heard, the fire intensified” and firefighters withdrew about 660 feet away, the study said. “Immediately after this, the explosion of the tank occurred.”

A fireball charred vegetation and traffic signs from more than 160 feet away. At nearly 300 feet away, pine needles underwent pyrolysis, the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures, researchers found. PHOTO CREDIT Bonilla, J.M., Belmonte, J., Marín, J.A., 2014. Gas Natural: El accidente de Zarzalico

Juan Manuel Bonilla, a fire officer from Murcia Fire Service, an author of the study, said in an email that the tanker “opened like a food can.” 

Pieces were propelled more than 400 feet. A 200-pound bafflefrom within the tank was hurled about 600 feet across four lanes of traffic, landing at a service station.

An explosion was so powerful that it hurled a 200-pound baffle from within the tank about 600 feet across four lanes of traffic. It landed at a nearby service station. PHOTO CREDIT Bonilla, J.M., Belmonte, J., Marín, J.A., 2014. Gas Natural: El accidente de Zarzalico

“The tanker that had the accident in Zarzalico was single wall with insulation (most of those circulating in Spain) and those that circulate in the United States are double-walled with intermediate vacuum and are safer,” Bonilla said.

A charred piece of wreckage from the tanker

Local concerns persist

Larry Nicolais Jr., owner of Constantino’s Catering and Events in Glenburn Township, just outside of Clarks Summit, said he was surprised at how little local attention was being called to the LNG project. 

“The silence on the whole issue is most concerning,” he said. “I don’t think that this is on anybody’s radar. I’ve seen no conversation about this anywhere.” 

He said Routes 6 and 11 right outside his business were upgraded in 2016 to be wider and smoother, prompting traffic to travel even faster.

“There’s no doubt that it’s gotten worse in the past five years,” he said. “Then you add that kind of volume – never mind what cargo they are carrying.”

He said trucks going through Clarks Summit would face a chokehold of pedestrian crosswalks, narrow streets and slower-moving traffic in a crowded commercial corridor – making that an extraordinarily dense spot for LNG tankers to be passing through – and among the worst possible locations should something go wrong.

Asked to measure his anxiety about the LNG tankers on a scale of one to 10, Nicolais said: “The concern is very high. It’s a 10.”

Opponents of Pennsylvania-New Jersey LNG Plan Cheer Federal Ruling

Critics of a plan to transport liquefied natural gas from northeastern Pennsylvania to a port on the Delaware River in New Jersey welcomed a recent federal ruling that they say could put up significant regulatory speed bumps – or possibly derail the project altogether.

The ruling, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, involved an LNG facility in Puerto Rico run by New Fortress Energy. The company had sought a ruling that FERC lacked jurisdiction over the facility but the commission ruled on March 19 that it does have oversight.

That decision is significant for what bearing it might have on another New Fortress Energy-related project, which would process natural gas at a plant in Wyalusing, Pa., liquefy it through super-low temperatures and then send it via rail and/or highway to a port in Gibbstown, N.J.

“With the caveat that this is speculation, but informed speculation, I will say yes, this does have an impact on Wyalusing,” said Jordan Luebkemann, an associate attorney for Earthjustice, which opposed the New Fortress special permit allowing LNG to be transported by rail

New Fortress has sought to have FERC disclaim jurisdiction over the project, which has already gained numerous federal, state and local permits, including one from the Delaware River Basin Commission. 

A full-fledged FERC review could set off environmental assessments that could consider the ecological, cultural and human impacts of the project.

That, in turn, could also mean opportunities for litigation to challenge the quality and thoroughness of those reviews – all of which could amount to added time, scrutiny and chances for the project to be delayed or derailed.

A New Fortress spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

The company has two filings pending before FERC seeking declarations that both the Wyalusing and Gibbstown sites are free of its oversight. 

A FERC spokeswoman, Tamara Young-Allen, said the filings remain pending. Citing regulations against discussing the timing of a proposed action, she would not estimate when the commission might render rulings.

It was not immediately clear how long the permitting process might take if FERC were to assert jurisdiction over the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sites. 

It’s possible the commission could assert jurisdiction over both, one, or neither of the sites.

Critics of the Pennsylvania-New Jersey project said the Puerto Rico plant has parallels to the planned facilities in Wyalusing and Gibbstown and expressed hope that, under a Biden administration, FERC will take a harder look at the New Fortress plans.

Diana Dakey, an activist with the group Protect Northern PA, said that FERC asserting jurisdiction in the Puerto Rico case was a “positive.”

In a recent federal filing, New Fortress said it had spent nearly $160 million on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey project. The filing said the company had “not issued a final notice to proceed” to its engineering, procurement and construction contractors. 

In an earnings call on March 16, Wesley R. Edens, the co-chief executive officer of Fortress, the parent company of New Fortress, said: “Pennsylvania is a project that we think has a lot of merits. We haven’t given up on that by any means.”

The FERC ruling on Friday turned on several technical regulatory questions. Among others, the commission rejected arguments by New Fortress that it was exempt from jurisdiction based on the acreage the plant in Puerto Rico occupies, other federal permits that were required to construct it and questions about whether the plant relied on a pipeline. 

The commission directed New Fortress to file an application within 180 days. It also found that it was “in the public interest” to allow the plant to continue operating while the application was pending, and that, presuming the company complied with the order, no enforcement action would be merited.

In its ruling, the commission also sent a signal that LNG operators should tread carefully.

“Given the rapid growth in interest in LNG and the wide variability among facility configurations, we acknowledge that the commission’s precedent regarding its jurisdiction over LNG facilities is not easily extrapolated from one facility to another,” the decision reads. 

It said its order should clarify that situation but added: “At the same time, we emphasize that uncertainty regarding the scope of our authority does not give an entity carte blanche to purse an action which ultimately might be found to violate the (Natural Gas Act) – while New Fortress had informal discussions with commission staff, it chose not to seek a declaratory order from the commission on its jurisdiction before constructing its facility.”

One of the commissioners, James P. Danly, dissented, asking what remedy FERC was considering in its ruling. 

He said the ruling would mean forcing New Fortress to file an application, the contents of which “we cannot anticipate, and then roll the dice and see if New Fortress Energy can be allowed to remain in operation.”

“I question the wisdom of this course of action,” he said.

Opponents of the Pennsylvania-New Jersey project had been following FERC’s actions on the Puerto Rico plant closely and said the decision gave them hope. 

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said attempts by New Fortress “to avoid regulatory controls and oversight by FERC is typical of NFE’s standard operating procedure – try to avoid regulation, skirt reviews, and fly under the radar to ease their path to operation.”

She added that New Fortress, which indicated in federal filings in October that it expected Wyalusing to be operational by the first quarter of 2022, “wasted a lot of time when they could have been going through the FERC process and now have to tack it on in the 11th hour, just when they planned to be operating to turn a profit.”

“This could be a very expensive mistake for them,” she said.