Danger at our doorstep

LNG storage facilities outside Baltimore and Washington would be tempting targets

March 30, 2010|By Charles S. Faddis

DANGER ON OUR DOORSTEP

Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is a highly dangerous substance that needs to be handled with extreme care. To form LNG, natural gas, which is naturally a vapor, is cooled to form a liquid, which occupies much less space than it does as a gas. In fact, its volume is only about one six-hundredth of what it was before it was liquefied.

If ruptured, an LNG storage tank will begin to spew this liquefied natural gas onto the ground or the water around it. No matter how cold it is, the temperature outside the tank will be much warmer than that inside the tank, which is cooled to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit. The spilled LNG will then begin to "boil" and return to a gaseous state, increasing in volume as it does so by 600 times.

It will also begin to mix with the surrounding air. Once the mixture reaches a ratio of 10 percent to 15 percent natural gas to the surrounding air, it will be flammable. Taking into account the increase in volume from vaporization and caused by this mixing, this means that the contents of a single large LNG storage tank with a capacity of, say, 140,000 cubic meters of gas, will, if ruptured, produce tens of billions of cubic feet of flammable gas. According to studies, the resulting air-gas mixture plume could extend as far as 7.3 miles from the ruptured tank.

If breathed, this mixture would be deadly. If ignited, it would produce a monstrous fireball and could cause third-degree burns and ignite structures as far as 2 miles away. No existing firefighting technology can fight such a blaze.

One would assume that any substance as dangerous as this would be stored and handled as far from densely populated areas as possible. One would be wrong.

At Sparrows Point, adjacent to the steel mill, AES Corp. proposes to construct a terminal at which LNG tankers would dock and at which LNG would be stored. The facility would be capable of handling two tankers at a time, each holding as much as 217,000 cubic meters of LNG. The three storage tanks on shore would be 259 feet in diameter and 170 feet tall.

The closest residential neighborhood to this site is roughly 1 mile away. Right next door to this site is a steel mill, potentially a giant source of ignition for a flammable substance such as LNG. Thousands of people work in this facility.

In the Chillum neighborhood of Prince George's County, Washington Gas proposes to build a massive new LNG storage facility. The storage tanks would hold up to 1 billion cubic feet of LNG. This location is inside the Capital Beltway, virtually on top of the line between Prince George's County and the District of Columbia. It is in the middle of heavily populated residential neighborhoods.

Leaving aside for a moment the possibility of simple industrial accidents, it does not take a counterterrorism specialist like me to understand that these new facilities would, if built, be significant targets for any terrorist group interested in attacking our nation. They would be, in effect, giant thermal bombs, positioned on the doorstep of major cities and in immediate proximity to large numbers of innocent victims. An attack on the Chillum facility, if properly executed, would have the capacity to incinerate an area extending to the edge of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. A vapor cloud released from this site could potentially extend as far as the White House.

Equally dangerous are the tankers that would bring the LNG to Sparrows Point. These huge vessels would have to bring their cargo all the way up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore's doorstep before unloading. We live in an age of piracy. If one of these vessels were commandeered, it would become a floating bomb, one which potentially could be brought via the shipping channel as far as the Inner Harbor before being set ablaze.

How can it be that the Department of Homeland Security has not stepped in to quash these projects and ensure that we do not create new hazards of this order of magnitude in immediate proximity to the heart of two of our major cities - one of them, our nation's capital? Permission for the Sparrows Point project has already been granted. As this article goes to press, hearings on the proposed LNG project are moving ahead before the Maryland Public Service Commission, as if this were some routine regulatory matter and not an issue of national security.

We have done a lot of talking since Sept. 11 about a new reality and the need to accept changes in the way we live and work. Has any of that talk meant anything? More than eight years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, are we really incapable of recognizing danger even when it is at our doorstep?

Charles S. Faddis, a Davidsonville resident, is the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's WMD terrorism unit. He is president of a security consulting firm and the author of books including "Willful Neglect," an examination of homeland security in America. His e-mail is charles faddis@hotmail.com.

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