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When things blow up
Elba Island’s LNG operations are slated for expansion in 2014

As a kid, I was something of a pyromaniac.

This was before parents stopped smoking in public, when books of matches used to be given out at weddings and other events as party favors. I used to enjoy pocketing 50 or 60 of them and sneaking off to the parking lot, where I would line them up like dominoes, ignite one end and watch the sizzling spectacle.

A stern talking-to by my local firefighters and being banned from my crush Jeff Shapiro's REO Speedwagon-themed bar mitzvah broke of me of this irresponsible practice.

These days the fires I set are figurative, and it's even more satisfying to see a story burn up the interwebs like last week's cover story about Kim Spencer and the Thinking Mom's Revolution.

I've also received lots of tea and sympathy for the column about Atlanta-based Chance Partners' predatory interpretation of the city's zoning laws on 61st Street, proving to be more of a slow burn now that the city's lawyers are involved.

While it's super fun to see things blow up, the thrill is limited to Twitter and the exciting trailer from the upcoming Fast & Furious 6. Actual explosions that kill people and damage property just freak me out. Bless the people of Boston and West, Texas (and Syria and Safed) who know the horror too well.

That massive blast at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed 14 workers and first responders and injured 160 more gave me uncomfortable flashbacks of 2008's Imperial Sugar disaster, and I got to wondering about the detonation potential of our other local industry. I am particularly interested in the big blue bubble-shaped containers on Elba Island that store liquid natural gas (LNG).

Thanks to its gleeful fracking of America's last unspoiled resources, the natural gas industry has plenty of extra product on its hands. Energy companies want to export LNG all over the world and make loads of money. (Corporations, just like us!)

To that end, Kinder Morgan, the third largest energy company in North America and the parent company of Southern LNG, announced in January that it has joined forces with global oil giant Shell to expand the pipeline terminal at Elba Island. Currently, liquified natural gas is shipped in, turned into gas and piped out; the expansion will make it possible to pipe gas from domestic sources into Savannah, turn it into liquid gold and ship it overseas. The request was filed with the DOE in 2012, and the Elba Island Liquefaction Project is slated for construction in the fall of 2014.

I am not trying to be purposefully incendiary here: In its liquid state, LNG is fairly harmless, unless you put it in a martini. When it hits air, however, it becomes highly flammable, and though it evaporates immediately, vapors can become trapped, ignite and go boom.

Last year, Southern LNG tabled plans to truck up to 58 loads a day of LNG through one of Savannah's busiest corridors after citizens pressured the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over such safety concerns.

Though the truck-loading facilities on Elba Island are to be dismantled to make way for the new project, "we cannot promise that we will never pursue LNG trucking in the future," according to Richard Wheatley, a representative from Kinder Morgan's Public Affairs Department. "As the domestic LNG market develops, potential future customers could request reconsideration of trucking LNG."

I relayed my worries over the Elba Island expansion and the subsequent 350 million cubic feet of gas per day swirling from liquid to vapor to liquid again, wringing my hands over those poor folks in Texas. He patiently explained to me the big differences in fertilizer and LNG production and assured me that "safety is at the forefront of our current and planned operations at Elba Island."

He sent links showing that LNG terminals are designed with multiple layers of protection, must meet rigorous safety regulations and are equipped with spill containment systems, fire protection systems, multiple detectors and alarms.

I felt better. I was clearly just being a ninny thinking that Savannah could be blown to kingdom come at any minute.

Then last Thursday, two barges on the Mobile River in Alabama went kablooey, injuring three workers and detonating very close to a tunnel that carries eight lanes of traffic under the river.

Initial reports said that the empty barges had been carrying LNG, which sent me into a tizzy. By later in the day corrections were issued that what had ignited from a static charge were the trapped vapors of a material called "natural gasoline."

Mr. Wheatley assured me that LNG has nothing to do with natural gasoline and helpfully emailed a link to Wikipedia.

Looking a bit further on the Energy Information Association's website (, natural gasoline — also called natural-gas condensate — is a term used in the gas processing industry to refer to a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons extracted from natural gas. According to, the liquefaction of natural gas to LNG requires cooling the natural gas and processing and managing the impurities and liquid hydrocarbons.

Will the volatile liquid hydrocarbons in natural gasoline be the same ones generated as byproduct of the new expanded operations at Elba Island?

Might be a good question to ask FERC: There's a public scoping meeting to gather input about what issues need to be evaluated for the Elba Liquefaction Project's upcoming Environmental Assessment on Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at the Metropolitan Planning Commission at 112 E. State St.

I unfortunately will not be there, as our family is happily hosting a table the same evening at the Savannah-Chatham Citizens Advocacy Covered Dish Supper, the biggest, best and most joyous potluck in the whole world.

Well, that's not official, but CA director Tom Kohler says one day we should go for Guinness Book Status. In its 35th year, this annual meeting-turned-hugfest is pure soul, a place where Savannah's beloved community comes to celebrate "people doing with and for one another."

You and yours are welcome; just bring a dish to share and a smile to Savannah Station around 5:30 p.m.

And no, I will not be handing out matchbooks.