For decades, Tybee resident Gordon Matthews drove past Elba on his way to Savannah. The sky-blue storage tanks, which were first operational in the 1970s, contain liquefied natural gas and tower over the Savannah River. They have always piqued his curiosity.
New security questions arose in 2019 when the island of Elba became one of seven LNG export facilities in the country. A June 8 explosion at a major LNG exporter in Texas heightened Matthews’ worries.
Now, as he drives back and forth to Tybee, Matthews wonders what could happen if gas leaks from these storage units and drifts through Chatham County and what economic hit the town could take if major incident like the one that happened with the Texas export. ease.
“Most people don’t even know what those blue tanks are,” Matthews said. “If there is a leak, it could all be over in 15 minutes.”
The pipeline explosion in Texas is still under investigation, but it is a reminder that despite the LNG industry’s strong safety record, accidents do happen. Risks have shifted to Elba as the facility shifts from imports to exports. However, experts say the changing risks are not widely understood and the US regulator that oversees LNG facilities has been slow to revise its standards.
The company that operates Elba says its facility is operating safely and has several plans in place in case of potential accidents or incidents.
“Our Elba facility was built in compliance with all safety and environmental requirements of its regulators,” Katherine Hill, a spokeswoman for Texas-based Kinder Morgan, said in an email response. . “We continue to operate the facility to meet the requirements of our federal and state regulators.”
Low probability, high consequence
LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to extreme temperatures and liquefied to facilitate transportation and storage. When it is ready to be used as energy, it is returned to its gaseous state and burned to produce electricity and heat.
LNG has a remarkably strong safety record compared to other fuels regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administrationa federal agency that regulates power transmission systems. Over the past ten years, 32 LNG “incidents” of varying severity have been reported to the agencywith only one reported injury. [That number does not include the recent Texas explosion at the facility operated by Freeport LNG.]
One such incident occurred at Elba Island, a facility owned and operated by Kinder Morgan and a division of Blackstone. The incident involved a refrigerant that caught fire, although it was quickly brought under control.
The Chatham Emergency Management Agency has worked with the Elbe to develop its emergency plan and is ready to respond in the event of an explosion, according to agency director Dennis Jones. Jones directed further questions regarding the Elba contingency plan to Kinder Morgan.
The company did not respond to questions about what might trigger its emergency response plan. However, the plan itself indicates that no public areas containing residences, schools, hospitals, parks or other sensitive areas would be affected in the unlikely event of a spill or release. “As a result, there should be no reason to evacuate public areas adjacent to Elba,” the plan reads.
This direction contrasts sharply with the findings of a 2004 study contracted by Chatham County and led by Chuck Watson, the founder of Savannah-based Enki Research. Enki works with international agencies and NGOs to predict the impact of hazardous events.
“To be clear, the chances of an accident are pretty low,” Watson said. “The problem is that if you have an accident, the consequences are quite serious.”
The 2004 study assessed potential danger sites in Savannah and determined what a “bad case” scenario might look like for the areas surrounding Elba, which is 5 miles downriver. city Hall. In the event of a major rupture of a single storage tank or tanker, he found that the heat from a pool fire could burn exposed skin up to 3 to 5 miles away.
Watson also raised concerns about Elba’s proximity to the tourist hub of Tybee Island and its location downstream from the Port of Savannah, one of the nation’s busiest seaports.
The Hill company spokesperson did not respond to questions raised by Watson’s study.
Causton Bluff, a neighborhood just three kilometers south of Elba, is well within the range of potential thermal impact, according to Watson’s adverse scenario scenario. But unlike Matthews, a Tybee resident, representatives from the Causton Bluff Homeowners Association said their neighborhood paid little attention to the facility at the end of the street, even describing it as a “good neighbour”.
Causton Bluff HOA Secretary and Treasurer Albert Parnell said he lived in his home for several years before he learned of the purpose of the facility. From his recollection, LNG was never mentioned in an email from HOA or discussed in a meeting during his three years with the association.
“Ships are coming in all the time, which frankly is one of the reasons we love it,” Parnell said. “We like to watch the freighters go by.”
The United States had only one LNG export terminal before 2016, but with the fracking boom, it is now one of the top countries in the world selling fuel overseas. The first of 10 Elbe liquefactions units entered service three years ago.
Safety measures in America have long been based on the belief that natural gas leaks pose little explosive threat when uncontained. Since natural gas clouds are largely methane lighter than air, they dissipate quickly in the open air, as has historically been the case at import terminals.
But the liquefaction process has changed that understanding, according to Jerry Havens, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering at the University of Arkansas. LNG export terminals carry an additional risk due to the large amounts of refrigerants used in the process. These refrigerants often contain hydrocarbons that are heavier than air, which means that in the event of a gas leak, the heavy vapor is more likely to gather into large, low clouds on the ground before dispersing. If they encounter a spark, the resulting explosion could be disastrous.
The US Pipeline Regulatory Agency has mandated an independent UK regulator study recent vapor cloud explosions similar to what one might find at LNG export terminals. Graham Atkinson, the lead scientist overseeing the work, discussed the study at a workshop on LNG organized in 2016 by representatives of the American government. He found that many of the worst incidents occurred in light or calm wind conditions.
“In calm weather, ignition is very likely if the leak is not isolated quickly,” Atkinson said in an email interview. “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if a regular gasoline depot, an LPG facility (or an LNG facility) has the misfortune to experience a major loss of containment under conditions that lead to one of these very large clouds, then there is a relatively high probability that it will lead to a severe explosion.
Havens, who attended the 2016 workshop, has been pushing for regulatory change ever since. However, the US pipeline regulator has not updated its standards for unconfined vapor cloud explosions or adjusted its risk modelling, which was used when Elba opened up. to exports.
Elba Island Environmental Assessment meets US regulatory guidelines, according to a spokesperson for the pipeline regulatory agency. Elbe calculates sound shock wave danger using one pound per square inch (psi) at the site boundary, a level that has the potential to damage buildings and cause injuries from projectiles. Psi is a measure of gravity.
This number is at least 10 times less than the severity depicted in the actual case studies presented at the workshop, which Havens says “have a demonstrated ability to destroy an entire plant and impact the public beyond.” site due to cascading failures”.
Simply put, the modeling does not realistically take into account severe accidents that could pose a major hazard to the surrounding community.
Yet, when calculating the risk, the independent engineers ran into a significant limitation. The risk model used by the US pipeline regulator is proprietary and tests the ability of engineers to review or corroborate industry calculations.
When asked to comment, Hill did not say whether Kinder Morgan was aware of the concerns raised at the workshop or had sought to address them.
On June 3, Havens filed a petition with the pipeline regulator asking the agency to update its guidelines in response to the research presented in 2016. He has yet to receive a response.
“We ignore the warnings that were given in the workshop,” Havens said.
The regulatory agency, meanwhile, says it continues to research LNG risk models with a view to revising its guidelines. Such a project is study vapor cloud explosions in calm conditions. Another is explore cascading effects explosions of flammable vapor clouds – which Watson would consider the worst case scenario. Following the recommendations of these projects, the regulator “will issue additional guidance regarding ECVs,” according to an agency spokesperson.
About 20 export terminals, including Elba, have been built or certified since the 2016 workshop. These sites predate other vapor cloud explosion studies.
“The risk is not as severe as you’ll hear from many environmentalists and environmental groups, but it’s not as low as you’ll hear from industry,” Watson said. “The truth is always somewhere in the middle.”