Just ask Adrienne Esposito what it takes to capture the public's attention about the environment.
Esposito — the executive director of Concerned Citizens for the Environment, a New York-based advocacy group with 80,000 members — could earn the deference of any respectable environmentalist. Her resume includes such achievements: involvement in battles over dredge spoils in Long Island Sound; protection of drinking water; promotion of renewable energy sources; and participation in protests against the infamous and now-mothballed Shoreham nuclear power plant, to name a few.
So when it comes to understanding what can make an issue involving natural resources spread beyond a few concerned activists to ignite the passion of a broad cross-section, Esposito is an expert.
“We do a lot of work on protecting drinking water, and it's harder to get people involved because they can't see the problem,” she said, holding up a glass of clear water over lunch recently at a restaurant on Long Island's North Fork. “In the environmental movement, when it involves some type of visual impact, people get it, and they get involved. It's easily understood. It evokes action and reaction.”
Much to the satisfaction of Esposito and her group, a prime example of that very phenomenon is unfolding all along both the Long Island and Connecticut sides of the Sound. By the hundreds, members of garden clubs, yacht clubs, beach clubs, civic organizations, town councils, conservation groups and regional planning organizations have been joined by fishermen, boaters, beach-goers and concerned citizens. They are signing petitions, writing letters, joining rallies and speaking out against a proposal concerning Long Island Sound. Broadwater Energy is seeking federal permits to anchor a fuel processing, storage and
supply barge — larger than any cruise ship — in the middle of open waters of the Sound. It's a spot in the estuary where many people envision only sea gulls, cormorants and gentle gray-blue seas.
“The kind of grass-roots effort they've been able to pull off is amazing,” said Leah Schmaltz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, part of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, which is leading the battle on the north side of the Sound. As one example, she noted that Esposito's organization submitted a petition with 50,000 signatures opposing Broadwater's plan. The signatures were collected in both states.
The myriad opponents think the barge, which would receive and process liquefied natural gas from overseas and provide it to energy-hungry markets in New York and Connecticut, would degrade the Sound environmentally. They see it as posing a safety threat to nearby populations and as a permanent mar on the seascape.
Drawings of the barge circulated by Broadwater, a Shell Oil-TransCanada PipeLine partnership, depict an amorphous industrial station parked 11 miles offshore from Branford and nine miles from the Long Island town of Riverhead.
“We have all fallen in love with this water body,” said Esposito. “Between Connecticut, New York and the federal government, we've put a half a billion dollars into restoring and protecting Long Island Sound over the last 10 years. We didn't do that to then turn it over to the energy industry.”
The Sound, with its bays, marshes and beaches, gives the region a unique identity, much like the Adirondacks define upstate New York, Esposito and others say, and Broadwater's plan feels like an assault on that identity.
“It's a part of you,” said Sid Bail, president of the civic association for the village of Wading River, one of the North Fork communities in the anti-Broadwater battle. He enjoys walking the beaches near his home, especially in the winter. In the summer, he spends time at a small beach club that sits directly south of where the Broadwater barge would be.
The problem with the plan is not simply one of aesthetics, said Schmaltz. True, at 1,200 feet long and 180 feet wide, the barge would be larger than world's largest cruise ship. But unlike the Queen Mary II, it would not be a temporary visitor to its port of call. Rather it would swing around a single anchor bored 230 feet into the seabed and have the look of a huge faceless machine. Ugly or not, the real heart of the concern is that a giant permanent structure in the middle of the Sound would be incongruous.
“If aesthetics were the only issue, this wouldn't be an issue,” she said. “This just seems so out of scale with what Long Island Sound is all about.”
John Hritcko Jr., senior vice president for Broadwater, said that of all the safety and environmental concerns raised over the LNG plan, this philosophical conflict over appropriate use of the Sound has been the most difficult to counter.
“The straight environmental and safety facts will speak for themselves,” he said.
In his view, Broadwater represents an expansion of industrial uses on the Sound, not the beginning.
The LNG barge, where super-cold liquefied gas would be heated back into vapor and fed into transmission pipelines, would be the first facility of its kind in the Sound, and the first facility of its kind anywhere to be located offshore. But every day, vessels filled with gasoline, oil, lumber, bananas and other goods cross the Sound en route to ports along both shores. Ferries carry cars, trucks and passengers between the Connecticut and New York. Undersea cables and pipelines transmit natural gas, electrical power and fiber optic signals.
To depict the Broadwater project as the gateway to transforming an unspoiled estuary into an industrial park is simply exaggeration, Hritcko said.
“It's a beautiful body of water,” he said. “But you cannot overlook the fact that there are commercial aspects to the Sound. And it's 1,300 square miles. We're only talking about using a small piece of that.”
The public, he said, also needs to be realistic about the region's energy needs. People should realize the environmental benefits to the region of being able to use more of the cleanest burning fossil fuel, rather than oil, he said. If LNG vessels don't start bringing more natural gas to the region, chances are the Sound will see an increase in the number of oil tanker deliveries, he contended, and an oil tanker spill would do far more damage than an LNG accident.
“If you don't do this, what is your alternative?” he asked.
Bail and others, however, believe this isn't strictly a local question about Long Island Sound and the region's energy needs. Issues of national energy policy are also relevant, they believe. Bringing in a new source of fossil fuel from overseas, Bail argues, just continues this nation's dependence on foreign energy sources, and undermines the impetus to move toward use of more renewable sources like wind power.
“The most appealing thing about LNG is that it requires people to do the least,” he said.
Among the most common concerns expressed by opponents is the fear of leaks and spills from the LNG tankers, which would hold 125,000 to 250,000 cubic meters of liquid fuel, and from the barge, which would hold the equivalent of 8 billion cubic feet of vaporized product. Such events, they fear, could result in fires, explosions or toxic vapor clouds harming local populations and property.
According to a 2004 federal report, offshore LNG facilities would pose less risk to local populations and property than those onshore in thickly settled areas. But nonetheless, safety measures should be taken to limit dispersion of a vapor cloud that could result from an accident or deliberate act. Anyone coming in contact with a methane cloud escaping from the barge, for example, would be in danger of asphyxiation. A vapor cloud could, in turn, ignite into a fire. A fire is likely to be contained aboard the vessel or barge, says the report, written by the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico and posted on Broadwater's Web site.
“Measures should ensure that areas of refuge are available,” the report states. “Community education programs should be implemented to ensure that persons know what to do in the unlikely event of a vapor cloud.”
Because of LNG tanker design, according to the report, the chances are low of a hull breach and resulting spill due to a collision or intentional act. If such an event did occur, people within 500 meters of the tanker would be at greatest risk.
On the shores of Boston Harbor, in Everett, Mass., a large LNG import and distribution facility has operated with relatively few accidents for the past 30 years, according to David Butler, Everett fire chief.
“We've had a couple of minor incidents, releases (of natural gas) in the 10,000 to 20,000 gallon range,” he said. “There was a fire in the engine room of one of the ships.”
None of the accidents has resulted in injuries, he said. His crews receive special training so that they are familiar with the vessels, the storage tanks and re-gasification equipment, he added. He also noted that security measures at the facility increased markedly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Assurances that the industry has a good safety record haven't quieted the opponents. They object to any increased level of risk, and since Broadwater's would be the first offshore LNG barge, predictions about its safety haven't been tested in the real world, they contend. And apart from safety concerns, carving off any piece of the Sound would set a dangerous precedent, they say.
“I'm not sure we want to treat the Sound as real estate,” said state Sen. Len Fasano, a North Haven Republican who heads a task force established by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to monitor the project and make sure Connecticut has a voice, if not a deciding role, in the final determination.
“This would be the first time Long Island Sound waters have been given to a corporation, and that kind of bugs me,” Fasano said.
Another member of the task force, state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, called the barge an intruder on a public environmental treasure.
“This would be the start of the industrialization of Long Island Sound. We have to be very careful,” she said. “I don't think it's an appropriate place for an LNG barge.”
The barge would be located just over the line that separates the area of the Sound under Connecticut's jurisdiction from the side controlled by New York. Neither state, though, holds the ultimate authority to decide Broadwater's fate. That rests with federal regulators.
Broadwater proposes negotiating a right-of-way agreement with New York state to use the portion of the Sound it has earmarked, and would make lease payments to that state. It has also offered to make payments of $6 million to $12 million annually to Riverhead, the nearest New York community to the barge and the home of the shuttered Shoreham power plant.
The town government turned down the offer and took a formal position against the plan, noted Bail, a 30-year resident of this part of Long Island. In local elections earlier this month, he added, many of the candidates who took anti-Broadwater positions won decisively.
“I haven't had one person come up to me and talk about how much money we're going to lose, and people are very concerned about taxes and high energy prices,” he said.
The barge itself would be buffered within a safety and security zone off-limits to boaters. The Coast Guard would establish the parameters, but a likely size would be 500 yards around from the barge. Likewise, tankers supplying the barge would traverse the Sound with an off-limits zone perhaps two miles ahead of them, one mile behind and a half-mile on either side.
The proposal, announced a year ago, is undergoing preliminary review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in preparation for Broadwater submitting formal permit applications by early 2006. The company hopes to have the facility operating by 2010 and supplying roughly one-quarter of the natural gas needs of the two states.
How environmental and safety hazards could be reduced will be key to FERC's decision about whether to grant permits. Toward that end, Broadwater must submit analyses on all facets of those issues. A few are: impacts on air quality from emissions of the re-vaporization machinery; noise from the barge's turbines; fire protection; effects on sea turtles and other marine creatures; and the changes that would be wrought by digging three-foot-deep trenches in the seabed for the connector pipe from the barge to an existing gas transmission line 25 miles to the west.
Hritcko said that environmental studies are under way and that the Coast Guard has not completed its analysis of safety and security, so it is premature for opponents to criticize the project on those grounds.
“There's been a lot of misinformation,” he said.
Overall, though, Hritcko said he is confident that environmental effects would be minimal and could be offset by the project's benefits. Safety concerns, he said, can be assuaged with proper personnel, equipment and training. The small risk of an accident or deliberate act against the barge or an LNG vessel resulting in fires, spills or toxic vapor clouds would pose little threat to the public, he said, because the barge would be miles from shore in 90 feet of water, away from the most popular spots for marine life.
“We've chosen an area of the Sound that's much less sensitive than other areas (such as those along the coasts),” he said.
Opponents of the barge, however, aren't convinced that the project will be as benign as Broadwater depicts. They worry about harm from excavation of the sea floor for the connector pipe and the anchor, and the effect of the connector pipeline and barge on water temperature.
Some marine creatures such as lobsters appear to be very sensitive to warming by even one degree in average water temperatures, according to scientists. And they are concerned that more invasive non-native species will be carried into the Sound by the LNG vessels coming from natural gas-rich nations in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Opponents also worry about polluted runoff from the barge and possible need to close off The Race — the narrow channel at the Sound's eastern end — when the LNG barges would enter. That, in turn, could hamper the operations of submarines from the Groton naval base. The many recreational and commercial fishermen who frequent The Race could be temporarily shut out each time an LNG tanker sails into The Sound. Broadwater anticipates the barge would receive two to three shipments per week. And the Coast Guard's limited resources, they say, have already stretched thin its ability to mitigate the many hazards in the estuary listed in a recent Coast Guard report. The report was the result of meetings called by the Coast Guard with a cross-section of recreational and commercial users of the Sound.
David Conover, who heads the marine sciences department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said his review of the project concluded that many of both the environmental fears and the purported benefits are overstated. He urged people to weigh the proposal in the context of how the entire region is meeting its energy needs now and how it will do so in the future.
“This is a policy issue,” said Conover, who publicly is neither supporting nor opposing the project. “This is one more illustration that we need to think about issues like zoning for marine waters.”
For Schmaltz of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, it's also a matter of adding stresses to a body of water that's already taxed by being in the middle of one of the nation's most populous areas. Too much has been invested in trying to undo the damage of past mistakes to risk another, she said.
“We worry about the cumulative impacts.”