Saturday, December 5, 2015 - 10:30am
MIKE MAYO - SUN SENTINEL
If Florida East Coast Railway gets its way, it might soon carry hazardous Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) across densely populated South Florida. The rail company has a pending application with the Federal Railroad Administration to transport LNG, a prospect that should raise questions and concerns. Its tracks run through bustling downtowns, neighborhoods and school zones in eastern Broward and Palm Beach counties.
LNG is "inherently volatile" and potentially calamitous, according to a 2004 Congressional Research report, with special fire risks if there's a mishap. LNG is a super-cooled liquid that's 1/600th the volume of natural gas, stored and shipped at minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit.
Is it safe? How much LNG would the rail line carry per train or per day? What kind of emergency response planning and coordination with local governments will be done before LNG is shipped? If the feds approve, when would LNG transport begin?
The rail line won't say.
"FECR is not going to do interviews or answer questions regarding LNG while we have a pending request in to the [federal government]," Robert Ledoux, the railway's senior vice president and general counsel, said in an email. "FECR has not received approval…to move LNG as a commodity."
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The Federal Railroad Administration approved the first freight transport of LNG in October, granting permission to a railroad company in Alaska.
Even though LNG is nontoxic, a spill or derailment could be devastating to surrounding areas. The liquid expands rapidly when it vaporizes and can catch fire when it hits the air. A "pool fire" fueled by LNG burns extremely hot and cannot be extinguished, according to the Congressional report, and has the capacity to cause injuries and property damage "a considerable distance from the fire itself" because of "thermal radiation."
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"Great, nothing like a little fireball," saidPalm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams of Boca Raton, whose district includes the railroad that runs parallel to Dixie Highway and U.S. 1.
"One would think that the railroad has proper safeguards before moving this stuff, but I'd like to see what those are," said Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr of Hollywood, who lives near the rail line.
Neither elected official knew of the rail line's intent to transport LNG until I told them. They noted the railway currently carries other hazardous materials in special tanker cars. But both were disturbed to hear that the company wouldn't answer questions about its LNG plans and that I couldn't find out much about the application review process from the Federal Railroad Administration.
I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see the railway's application, but was told by a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman that "most, if not all of it" might be withheld because it's considered "proprietary information."
Florida East Coast Railway has also applied to use LNG as a fuel source for its locomotives. LNG is cleaner and more efficient than traditional fuels, so it's replacing diesel to run trucks, trains and ships. Given the small amounts involved for fuel use, that seems like a sensible and acceptable risk.
But transporting larger amounts as freight might be dicier.
There has been trouble in the past. In the 1940s, a storage tank at one of the first LNG plants in the United States ruptured, sparking a pool fire that killed 128 people in a Cleveland neighborhood. An accident at an LNG facility in Algeria in 2004 killed 27 workers and injured 56 while causing $900 million in damage.
Because of safety concerns, LNG plants are usually located in industrial areas with a buffer zone from homes. And specialized LNG tanker ships don't use the same ports as passenger cruise ships.
Is it appropriate to have the stuff carried by train through crowded areas?
LNG has become more prevalent in the country with the advent of fracking, and now it's being transported in smaller batches. In the last decade, the United States has gone from being an LNG importer to an exporter. Besides being used as fuel in liquid form, it can also be converted back to gas for use in power plants.
Earlier this year, a company affiliated with Florida East Coast Railway received federal approval to export LNG. New Fortress Energy will convert natural gas to LNG at a new plant at the Hialeah rail yards in Miami-Dade. New Fortress planned to ship LNG overseas through South Florida ports (including Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach) after transporting it by truck and rail, according to its application to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Port Everglades deputy director Glenn Wiltshire said the Miami-Dade LNG plant is not operational, and that New Fortress Energy has not started shipping LNG through the port. He said the proposed shipments will be done in smaller "Thermos-type" cargo containers, and that the U.S. Coast Guard will regulate the amount that can be placed on a vessel.
"It's managed risk," Wiltshire said.
Other LNG storage and conversion plants are in the works in Martin and Brevard counties.
All this recent activity has mostly been under the radar in South Florida.
But before freight trains carrying LNG start rolling through our neighborhoods, I say the issue needs to get a lot more attention and vetting.