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First State joins water regulator’s final approval of controversial LNG plan along Delaware River

Delaware Public Media

The Delaware River Basin Commission Wednesday gave its final approval for a plan to build a dock at Gibbstown, NJ for the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The controversial project has generated a wave of opposition, including some in the First State.

That opposition has come from environmentalists and some local governments in Delaware, as well as the other three basin states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

Delaware, represented by Shawn Garvin, Secretary of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, voted with New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the federal government to uphold its 2019 approval of the project – a decision that was put on hold while the commission heard objections from environmentalists earlier this year.

New York abstained after unsuccessfully proposing a delay in the decision pending an analysis of the project’s impacts on water quality and climate change.

The commissioners, in a highly anticipated quarterly meeting, concluded there was no reason to change their previous approval of the plan to build a new dock – “Dock 2” – for the trans-shipment of LNG at the Gibbstown Logistics Center, a new port on the Delaware River in Gloucester County, NJ.

“The commissioners have concluded that the Dock 2 project, as conditioned by the docket, would not substantially impair or conflict with the commission’s comprehensive plan for the immediate and long-term uses of the water resources of the basin,” a resolution said, as read by Kenneth Warren, general counsel to the DRBC.

By approving the resolution, the commissioners also concluded that a months-long challenge to the plan by the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) had failed to prove that the LNG project would substantially conflict with the DRBC’s mission to ensure water quality in the basin, or that there was insufficient information in the record to support approval.

The decision removed a stay on the earlier approval that the commission agreed at its September meeting.

Garvin, holding the rotating chairmanship of the commission, said Delaware supports the approval of the project for the reasons laid out in the resolution. “After careful review of the extensive record, Delaware has determined that the commission had sufficient information to render its decision on the docket, and discharged its responsibilities consistent with its authorities in the comprehensive plan,” he said, referring to the DRBC’s guiding document.

The project’s developer, Delaware River Partners, welcomed the DRBC’s vote. “Delaware River Partners is pleased to have received final approval for the project,” it said in a statement. “This approval gives us the opportunity to continue to invest in and build new infrastructure that will create jobs and provide economic growth in the State of New Jersey and the surrounding region.”

"The Delaware River has been dealt a deadly blow by the Delaware River Basin Commission and the Governors who are supposed to protect our river, its irreplaceable quality, and our communities." - Tracy Carluccio, Delaware Riverkeeper Network deputy director

The DRBC’s approval, covering dredging and construction of the dock, removes a major obstacle to the start of the project but some permits are still needed, and those issued earlier by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are being appealed by Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN).

Tracy Carluccio, DRN’s deputy director, said construction by the project’s developer, Delaware River Partners, could not start for at least 30 days.

The project may now be subject to litigation by DRN – which said before the vote that it would appeal any approval in federal court.

The vote prompted howls of protest from environmental groups throughout the basin, who had gathered more than 100,000 signatures in opposition.

“With this vote today, the Delaware River has been dealt a deadly blow by the Delaware River Basin Commission and the Governors who are supposed to protect our river, its irreplaceable quality, and our communities,” said Carluccio said in a statement.

“If the one agency - the DRBC - that is supposed to be prioritizing the health of the river and its watershed over special interests and exploitation and supposed to be approaching their responsibility from a watershed-based perspective has abandoned that mission, the future of the river and all that rely on the Delaware is in the gravest jeopardy.

“We will not take this lying down, we will continue to fight this project in court and in every public arena possible, united with those who want clean water, air and energy, until we can be assured the river will be safe from the degradation that the Gibbstown LNG export terminal would cause,” she said.

The project would ship super-cooled natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of northern Pennsylvania about 175 miles via truck or train to the Gibbstown port – on the site of a former DuPont explosives factory -- where it would be loaded on to tankers and shipped overseas.

Critics say the plan would endanger public safety by carrying the highly explosive material through densely populated parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey; damage the environment by dredging the river, and increase carbon emissions by stimulating fracking at a time when all four of the basin’s Democratic governors are trying to reduce their states’ contributions to climate change.

“Shipping LNG through Delaware could disrupt existing river-based businesses, snarl traffic on busy highways and bridges, add to sea-level rise and, in a worst-case scenario, injure or kill many people and destroy vital infrastructure,” said Coralie Pryde of the League of Women Voters of Delaware in a statement before the vote. “No benefit to Delaware has been disclosed, and no possible benefit from this secretive, ill-considered plan could justify the potential risks.”

The commission, an interstate regulator of water resources, approved the project last year but then stayed its decision to allow DRN to argue at a public hearing why the plan should be rejected.

"No benefit to Delaware has been disclosed, and no possible benefit from this secretive, ill-considered plan could justify the potential risks." -Coralie Pryde, League of Women Voters of Delaware

After the online hearing in May, the hearing officer, John Kelly, produced a report saying the environmental group had not shown why the commission should reverse its earlier approval. The DRBC was due to decide whether to accept the report at its last meeting in September but the commissioners deferred a vote, saying they hadn’t had time to review Kelly’s report and other voluminous evidence.

The day before the meeting, environmental advocates including the actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, and the academic activist Bill McKibben, urged the DRBC to defer a decision again until President-elect Joe Biden takes office. They also argued that the project would violate federal, state and DRBC water-quality rules including the Clean Water Act, and that a delay would give Biden time to decide how to handle the issue.

Ahead of the meeting, Wilmington City Council urged Gov. John Carney, represented on Wednesday by Garvin, to vote no, and prompted the New Castle County Civic League and the League of Women Voters of Delaware to issue statements in opposition.

“These ships will carry LNG down the Delaware River, past our port and within a mile or two of downtown Wilmington and then out into the bay,” said Councilwoman Linda Gray, who sponsored a resolution calling on Carney to vote against the plan, during a council meeting on Dec. 3.

The highly explosive cargo would represent a threat to the safety of the people of Wilmington if there was a leak of the super-cooled gas, Gray said. Her resolution passed by 12 votes to 1.

The only vote against was Councilman Ciro Adams, the lone Republican on the 13-member council, who argued that preventing construction of the terminal would represent government interfering with commerce.

“I have difficulty with this resolution, as with any resolution where we try to control the flow of commerce,” Adams told the meeting. “I think it’s great that the United States is now an exporter and not an importer of natural gas. This can certainly be done safely.”

John Weber of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal environmental group, said during public comments that there would be a risk to public safety in Delaware from LNG tankers passing close to centers of population.

I think it's great that the United States is now an exporter and not an importer of natural gas. This can certainly be done safely." - Wilmington City Councilman Ciro Adams

But the most important reason to stop the project is the increased carbon emissions from the natural gas production in northern Pennsylvania that would be stimulated by the export demand, Weber said.
“That is the greatest danger of all,” he said. “At this point in our planet’s climate, extracting fossil fuels and burning them is the danger. If a facility like this is built, it locks us into another 20-25 years of burning fossil fuels.”

The New Castle County Civic League, a nonprofit coalition of civic groups, said a tanker accident off the Delaware coast has the potential to spill an explosive plume of LNG near major population centers such as downtown Wilmington, an area that includes some Environmental Justice communities -- where poor or racial-minority populations are disproportionately affected by environmental problems such as pollution or sea-level rise.

If the project goes ahead, the benefits will accrue to the project’s developer, New Fortress Energy, and its investors, but the costs will rebound on the people of Delaware, the league said in a statement. “Those in Delaware who are potentially adversely impacted by the project and its operations are subject to bearing the external costs,” it said.

The league said the dock is about 6.3 miles from Delaware, within a possible “impact zone” of an accident at the dock, and that the state’s border is less than three miles from the Commodore Barry Bridge which is expected to be used by trucks carrying LNG to Gibbstown from a planned liquefaction plant in northern Pennsylvania.

“The transport of LNG endangers the public and property with consequential hazards, exposing those near the navigation path of shipping vessels and/or transportation routes over land or water or near facility sites to unprecedented and unjustifiable risk,” the league said.

The League of Women Voters said there has been no official assessment of risks to public safety, public health, or environmental impact from the plan by the State of Delaware, the Delaware River Basin Commission, or any other agency. And it argued that the LNG development would be at odds with the mission of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which includes the development of clean energy sources and energy efficiency.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.