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Water regulator defends OK of plan to build LNG export terminal in South Jersey

An LNG tanker

An LNG tanker (Ron Gilbert/ Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

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The Delaware River Basin Commission defended its approval of a plan to build New Jersey’s first liquefied natural-gas export terminal on the Delaware River in South Jersey, saying it had allowed critics to argue against it at a quasi-judicial hearing but sees no reason to change its mind.

The interstate water regulator offered a brief statement at the start of an online “adjudicatory hearing” that presented opposing arguments by the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), and the developer of the terminal, Delaware River Partners (DRP) over whether the terminal should be built.

Risk of explosion

DRBC Secretary Pamela Bush said the commissioners agreed last September to a request for the hearing from DRN, which argues that the terminal at Gibbstown in Gloucester County would expose local residents to the risk of explosion, as well as overwhelming the community with truck traffic and disturbing the natural environment.

But she said that holding the hearing didn’t mean the commission believes its approval was incorrect. “Rather, the hearing gives DRN an opportunity to show, by a process set forth in DRBC’s rules, that the commission’s decision should be changed,” Bush said at the start of six hours of testimony on Monday, the first day of the hearing, according to a video that was released by DRBC on Tuesday.

Advocates had originally expected to face each other in person in a court-like setting, but because of social-distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, each attorney participated via video from his or her home or private office.

Presiding was John Kelly, a hearing officer with the Pennsylvania Department of State, who will prepare a report, based on hearing testimony and public comments, and then make recommendations to the commission — which is not required to accept his recommendations. There is no timeline set for the hearing or for Kelly to file his report and recommendations.

Less-than-full disclosure

DRN has argued that the commission didn’t previously disclose all details of the LNG plan, which is an extension of an earlier project to build a dock to export a range of goods including automobiles and other fossil fuels. The LNG component was a “game changer” that has the potential to be far more environmentally damaging than the earlier elements of the plan, DRN said last year.

But Delaware River Partners, a unit of New Fortress Energy, says it has conducted detailed reviews of the project’s effects on water quality and aquatic life, and has won approvals from all the relevant regulators.

The first phase of the project, Dock 1, required 17 approvals from five federal, state and local agencies, while Dock 2, where the LNG terminal would be built, required another eight permits, all of which have now been granted, said Kate Campbell, an attorney for DRP, at the hearing.

“The record will show that the reviews by these agencies were time-consuming, thoughtful and comprehensive,” Campbell said in an opening statement.

She attacked written testimony by DRN’s expert witnesses who she said had strayed outside their expertise in presenting their opinions on how the project would hurt the environment at a contaminated site that was once occupied by a DuPont explosives factory.

DRN’s experts, Campbell said, included a mussel scientist who offered an opinion on the rate of spills during a marine transloading operation, and a fisheries biologist testifying about the effects of dredging.

“In DRN’s view, it seems, scientific training of any sort is a license to speculate about environmental issues of every sort,” she said.

Failing to test for some chemicals

But Mark Fried, an attorney for DRN, accused the developer of failing to test for some chemicals that have been found at the site and which are the subject of DRBC water-quality standards.

Building the LNG terminal, Fried said, would conflict with the spirit of the Compact, a set of guiding principles that the DRBC adopted in 1961 when it was set up by the Kennedy administration to represent the water interests of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, plus the federal government.

“The commission has the means to ensure that no project, as defined by the Compact, will substantially interfere or conflict with the comprehensive plan which is required by the Compact to ensure a unified framework,” he said.

Fried argued in his opening statement that the commission and the developer have treated the impacts of the new phase of the development separately from the earlier phase whereas they should have included the full range of impacts on birds, fish and aquatic life.

Under the developer’s plan, natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of northeast Pennsylvania would be supercooled in a new liquefaction plant in Wyalusing, PA, and shipped about 175 miles by truck or rail to Gibbstown where it would be loaded onto oceangoing tankers. The terminal would also trans-ship other natural-gas products such as ethane, butane and propane.

Opponents say the highly explosive cargo would represent a threat to public safety along the route while stimulating the production of natural gas at a time when many cities and states — though not the federal government — are trying to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

In December, the federal government issued the nation’s first LNG-by-rail permit for shipment of the fuel from Wyalusing to Gibbstown.

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