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Proposed LNG shipping routes were at the center of heated debate in the council workshop.
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City Council workshop are usually low-key affairs held in the morning prior to the regularly scheduled council meeting every other Thursday. Last week’s was different, and not just because it was held a day early. Things got heated, and city officials seem to poised to take on Southeastern Natural Gas over the company’s proposal to bring trucks full of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) through the city.

Southeastern Natural Gas, a joint venture between Atlanta Gas Light and El Paso Corp., plans to route tankers full of LNG along DeRenne Avenue on their way from Elba Island to Atlanta.

The company’s president, Bruce Hughes, opened by apologizing to the mayor and council (never a good sign) for not having come to speak with them sooner about the plans. He said they had all been invited to an open house held at the Elba facility, but no personal contact had been made.

City aldermen weren’t the only ones slighted by the new business either. Apparently, despite the fact that LNG tankers are not only a hazardous material but actually categorized with Weapons of Mass Destruction by safety officials, Southeastern also had not spoken with the Coast Guard, the chief of the Savannah Fire Dept., first responders or any local hospitals. They have, however, lobbied officials at the state level.

Hughes’ presentation focused largely on heartwarming ideas like “providing alternative fuel to replace oil and diesel in heavy duty trucks,” and described Southeastern as “a startup company,” albeit one run by two of the largest natural gas players in the country.

The science behind LNG took some explaining when it came to the safety side, particularly the fear of a giant explosion. LNG occurs when compressed natural gas is brought to a temperature of 260 degrees below Fahrenheit. It’s transported in double-walled cryogenic tanks (remember that scene in Terminator 2 when Arnold crashes that tanker of liquid nitrogen to freeze the T–1000? Sort of like that.)

Inside its container, LNG actually isn’t flammable, so there’s no risk of an actual explosion, something Hughes tried to explain.

However, the no–explosion thing is sort of a red herring. If an LNG tanker leaked, the liquid would turn to a vapor that was lighter than air, and would float upward. At a certain point, the vapor and the air would reach a ratio where the vapor was combustible, so while there wouldn’t be an explosion, there is the potential for an incendiary vapor cloud.

Hughes was quick to point out that there have been “no catastrophic events in 30 years,” and there would be “extensive driver training,” though he refused to say specifically whether those would be company drivers or whether they would be contracted from another firm.

The real bombshell dropped when Hughes was interrupted by Acting City Manager Rochelle Small–Toney, who cited not only the company’s failure to discuss emergency planning with the Coast Guard, but also cited a memo from 2001 (when the Elba Island facility re–opened) from El Paso to former City Manager Michael Brown stating that no gas would be transported by truck.

After that, it was a steady stream of questions and comments from Mayor and Council that left Hughes clearly frustrated (although not as red in the face as BP’s Tony Heyward).

“I’m prepared to struggle against this on principle alone,” Mayor Johnson told Hughes, while conceding that the company would probably get its way in the long run thanks to its lobbying efforts at the state and federal level.