Portsmouth LNG Operation: A Neighborhood Nuisance
January 31, 2021
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — A natural gas vaporization facility isn’t the most agreeable of neighbors. There’s air, light and noise pollution and the constant fear of an accident, like the facility igniting into a fireball.
“I’m concerned about safety most of all,” said Heather Costa, who lives across the street from National Grid’s portable vaporization facility on Old Mill Lane.
Two years after the liquefied natural gas (LNG) conversion apparatus was called into temporary emergency duty to assist a major gas outage, the wintertime operation endures. Its existence is a point of contention in the semi-rural eastern portion of Portsmouth and Middletown.
“It’s frustrating to have this all in front of our house in a residential neighborhood,” Costa said.
Costa’s home falls within the Fire Department’s Level 1 evacuation zone on Old Mill Lane. The area closest to the LNG facility and the first to evacuate if an LNG tank ruptures. Costa said she hadn’t heard about the Fire Department’s evacuation plan, despite letters being mailed to neighbors saying they can receive the plan if they sign up online through an alert system.
“They’ve never given any information,” she said.
Other residents claim National Grid hasn’t been a good steward of the 5-acre site. They hear the constant droning of equipment and see the facility and its 8-foot-high, chain-link fence as an affront to their neighborhood with its mix of grassy fields and varied home designs.
“It’s not something you want to live next door to. This really isn’t the place for this,” said Lori MacDonald who, along with her husband, Stephen, live in a three-bedroom home across the street from the fossil fuel operation.
When the MacDonalds moved into their split-level home in 1992 they knew there would be some accommodations for the industrial, albeit relatively quiet, meter and regulator (M&R) station that moderates the Algonquin natural gas pipeline. The facility was built in 1963 as a so-called “gate station” that odorizes, meters, and adjusts the pressure for the gas pipeline that serves Aquidneck Island.
At its start, the lot next to the M&R station was used as a peak-shaving facility to fill gaps during winter peak demand episodes. Until 1991, propane was injected into the pipeline to bolster any supply shortfalls. In 2001, the owner then, the Providence Gas Co., received permission to establish a portable LNG vaporization facility. The standby operation lasted a year before it was dismantled. The propane tanks were removed from the site in 2014. In 2018, the lot was used briefly for staging pipeline maintenance operations and LNG equipment.
The site was well landscaped and unassuming, according to neighbors, but after National Grid bought Providence Gas in 2006 the appearance declined and the noise worsened. Lighting was brighter, gas odors were detected, and vehicle traffic increased. Overall, the facility’s presence on the street became disruptive.
“It’s an industrial complex in a residential neighborhood,” Lori MacDonald said.
Things got worse two years ago when National Grid’s vaporization facility was given emergency authorization in early 2019 to offer standby heating fuel during the January natural-gas outage. Six truck-mounted tankers of LNG and a mobile office arrived with portable vaporizers, portable booster pumps, a portable power supply, and a portable odorizer system — all ready to convert the super-cooled LNG to natural gas and inject it into the pipeline. The supposedly temporary facility operates December 1 through March 31. During that time the site must be staffed with a truck driver, two technicians, and a security guard 24 hours a day.
“When you have people at a station all the time, that’s not temporary, that’s permanent,” Stephen MacDonald said.
The LNG stored on-site wasn’t called upon in 2020 and hasn’t been needed so far this winter, but it vents and makes noises from routine maintenance such as blowdowns.
“A cloud of white stuff comes up from it,” Costa said. “It sounds like a tractor trailer is in front of our house.”
The MacDonalds say they also haven’t received information about what to do in the case of an emergency at the facility or instructions on how to evacuate if needed. They weren’t aware of National Grid’s initiative to figure out the long-term role of natural gas on Aquidneck Island. One of the options includes relying on the Old Mill Lane facility indefinitely.
“I don’t think National Grid is a good corporate neighbor,” Stephen MacDonald said. “And not a good corporate partner for Aquidneck Island.”
National Grid doesn’t favor the facility staying indefinitely either, saying at public hearings that it prefers permanent solutions such as a second natural-gas pipeline or a permanent vaporization facility on Navy property or in an industrial neighborhood.
But Old Mill Lane’s location — alongside the Algonquin pipeline where it reaches Aquidneck Island via a submerged pipeline from Tiverton — is suitable at the moment.
The problem is the Old Mill Lane temporary facility could be in operation for 10-15 years until an alternative is selected, approved, and operational.
Peter Horvath, a retired engineer who spent more than 30 years in LNG shipping and related fields, lives less than a mile from the facility in Middletown and within the evacuation area. He hears the facility’s blowdowns and other noises.
Horvath contends that National Grid is in no hurry to cease the operation. He wants to know why in 2010 the gas and electric utility stopped using a permanent facility on Navy property in Middletown, a site the multinational corporation has leased until 2026.
“That facility is licensed and approved,” he said.
National Grid acknowledged that the lease is active but noted that the Navy site has several impediments compared to Old Mill Lane. Trucking and work hours are limited. Equipment upgrades are needed, and a continuous setup isn’t allowed during the winter.
“The Old Mill Lane location also offers a more ideal hydraulic geographic position, should there be a need to inject LNG into the system,” National Grid spokesperson Ted Kresse said.
But Horvath noted that running the operation on Navy property would benefit the biggest user of natural gas on Aquidneck Island. He said the Navy also offers its own fire department and security protection. Due to its remote location, Old Mill Lane is more challenging for fire trucks and other first responders to reach, he added. He said a small incident could therefore be catastrophic.
“If something happens there, it will be very fast and very unpleasant,” Horvath said.
National Grid’s suggestion of moving the facility to a barge south of Aquidneck Island is interesting but unfeasible, according to Horvath. Green lighting an LNG barge would require numerous approvals and a full-time tug boat to keep it anchored. Meanwhile, public opposition would be considerable.
“People will come out of the woodwork to stop this thing,” Horvath said.
A second pipeline seems like the most realistic option but it would probably take about 10 years to get the permits and then be built. Horvath noted that Enbridge, the Calgary-based owner of the Algonquin pipeline, hasn’t expressed interest in building a second pipeline.
Horvath noted that the federal report addressing Aquidneck Island’s 2019 natural-gas outage found there was adequate supply and pressure in the pipeline network to meet customer demand, but that equipment breakdown and mistakes by National Grid and Enbridge led to the outage. National Grid is being sued for negligence by Newport residents and businesses for the outage.
“It was a compete management failure on National Grid,” Horvath said.
The federal report, Horvath said, is further evidence that there is no immediate need to increase the natural-gas supply for Aquidneck Island or for keeping the Old Mill Lane facility operating.
“This whole thing has been ill-conceived from the get-go and designed to bypass regularity oversight,” Horvath said.
The Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) recently denied National Grid’s request to exempt its Old Mill Lane facility from operating as a major energy facility.
The EFSB’s written order noted that National Grid objected to licensing the operation as an energy facility because the company feared it would harm the reliability of service to all Rhode Island customers and hamper responses to interruptions in gas supply. As a temporary emergency facility, National Grid argued, it doesn’t have any significant impacts on the environment, public health, or safety.
There is scant independent information on the health and environmental impacts of portable LNG vaporization facilities, according to the London-based corporation. National Grid said LNG is “the cleanest fossil fuel available” and is colorless, odorless, and non-toxic. LNG vapor is lighter than air, and that the combustion of natural gas doesn’t emit soot, dust, or fumes. Carbon emissions are 30 percent less than oil and have much lower nitrogen oxide emissions and almost no sulphur dioxide emissions, according to National Grid.
But the EFSB found that ongoing wintertime deployment of the Old Mill Lane operation doesn’t classify it as a temporary emergency facility. And that using it without an end date and until a long-term alternative is found constitutes a major energy operation.
National Grid now has until June 1 to submit an application to the EFSB to qualify the Old Mill Lane facility as one, along with a request to extend its emergency authorization while the application is reviewed.
Meanwhile, neighbors are left wondering how long they have to endure the disruption.
Costa lives next door to the MacDonalds. The Algonquin pipeline runs next to her home, where it crosses Old Mill Lane and reaches the M&R station. The LNG site was quiet when she moved in 2012 but it changed after National Grid was granted the emergency use.
“The biggest complaint that I had is that we were really unaware and they all if a sudden brought in these five huge tankers,” Costa said.
Excessive lighting and noise disrupted the sleep of her infant son. She said she could hear conversations from the operation’s staff, including offensive language.
National Grid said it recognizes that Old Mill Lane is not a preferred location for local residents, “but as we have said in the past, it is a safe facility which plays a critical role in ensuring reliability to our Aquidneck customers on the coldest days of the year,” Kresse said.
As far as the Aquidneck Island Long-Term Gas Capacity Study, he said, “We are working with various stakeholders from across Aquidneck Island and the state to identify an alternate solution. We have also been transparent with the community with the fact that it will take a few years before we could cease winter operations at Old Mill Lane.”
A state Senate commission is also looking at natural gas solutions for Aquidneck Island and alternatives to Old Mill Lane.
In the meantime, National Grid said it has been listening to residents and making improvements, such as reducing lighting and making aesthetic upgrades. To lower sound, diesel generators were replaced by electrical equipment and the vaporizers were modified.
Wetlands behind the property and the location of the LNG injection into the gas main prevent moving the equipment further back from the road.
“We have also held multiple meetings with the municipalities and local first responders to discuss emergency planning and risks, and residents should have confidence that the public’s safety is paramount to everything we do,” Kresse said.
Letters sent to neighbors in Middletown and Portsmouth note that a complete and instantaneous release has a probability of occurring five times in 10 million chances annually.
But the risk offers little comfort when residents have to see and hear the facility operating and watch it being taken down and rebuilt every year.
“It’s still there and it doesn’t seem like they are doing anything to listen to us,” Costa said.
“This has become the issue,” Stephen MacDonald said. “They are poor neighbors.”
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