A plan to bring liquified natural gas from Wyalusing, Pa., to a port in Gibbstown, N.J., has focused largely on the potential hazards of transporting as much as 3 million gallons of the highly flammable product at a time by rail.
But the project sponsor also has plans to send as many as 400 tanker trucks per day, each carrying 10,000 gallons of LNG, crisscrossing Pennsylvania and New Jersey roadways, passing through or near small cities and communities with congested roads.
That’s significant given that project proponents, federal government and risk evaluators of the LNG-by-rail project have repeatedly said that the likelihood of a failure of an MC-338 cryogenic highway tanker is greater than that of a specialized rail tanker.
From 1994 through 2005, hazardous materials released in railroad accidents resulted in 14 deaths, Joseph H. Boardman, who was then the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testified in 2006.
By comparison, hazardous materials released in highway accidents during the same period resulted in more than eight times as many deaths, he said.
A 2019 transportation impact assessment filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on behalf of the project sponsor, New Fortress Energy, revealed that the Wyalusing plant would be staffed by three shifts of workers, run 24 hours a day and feature 800 truck trips daily – half of which are expected to be loaded with LNG and with the other half expected to be making return trips empty.
If an LNG tanker were breached and a vapor cloud ignited, an explosion could send projectiles hundreds of feet as well as set off a fire that can burn as high as 2,426 degrees – more than twice the flame temperature of gasoline.
Jennifer Wynn of South Abington, Pa., lives less than a mile from one potential route for the LNG tankers.
“One truck overturns in our town — who knows what danger there would be?” she said. “It’s unfathomable to me.”
She said Routes 6 and 11 in Clarks Summit are already congested and brimming with restaurants and businesses that would be in harm’s way if something went wrong. At 400 trucks per day, she said, “Statistically, there is bound to be an accident, right?”
Local roads not immune to crashes
New Fortress has not publicly released its rail and highway routes, but a map compiled by FracTracker Alliance and published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network reveals the likeliest two paths for each.
The highway routes vary from winding rural roads, congested narrow local streets, highways and routes through densely populated communities.
Among the communities the routes would pass through or near: Chester, Clarks Summit, Dallas, Dunmore, Factoryville, Glenburn, Kingston, Luzerne, Meshoppen, Parryville, Tunkhannock in Wyoming County, West Conshohocken and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, and Logan and Greenwich townships in New Jersey.
Highway tankers leaving Wyalusing would travel Route 6 in Bradford County, a 33-mile section of road that has recorded 488 crashes, or an average of two per week, from 2015-19, according to PennDOT data.
The section of Route 6 that extends into Wyoming County for another 10 miles has recorded an average of 79 crashes per year in that same period, state figures show.
One of those crashes involved a tractor-trailer carrying liquid propane that left the road, ripped out about 100 feet of guardrail and went down a steep embankment in Meshoppen Township in March 2019. The driver was seriously injured but no leak occurred, according to PennDOT.
Few crashes and zero “violent explosive” releases
A 2004 article in The Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries suggested that ground transportation of LNG has had a sound safety record.
It said an “exhaustive survey” of the Major Hazard Incident Data Service found 12,179 accidents had occurred up to July 2003 and that of those, four involving LNG happened on the road with none resulting in a release or fire.
And a 2016 estimate by the U.S. National Response Team found that in the previous 15 years, there had been six reportable incidents of highway crashes involving LNG, with none resulting in a fire or “violent explosive release.”
However, Patrick Hardy, chief executive of Hytropy Disaster Management, was unsure.
He said he was not familiar with the LNG highway route in Pennsylvania and New Jersey but cautioned: “Every single mile that truck is on the road, that could be another mile where there could be an accident or a release.”
Transporting LNG by highway does not require the kinds of special permits and intense federal review needed to transport LNG by rail.
Of more than 700 motor carriers, 18 transport LNG using cryogenic cargo tank trailers in the United States, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Transportation report.
Overseas and in the United States, some tanker crashes have made headlines after things went spectacularly wrong and some of those cases have even been the subjects of academic studies:
On June 22, 2002, near Tivissa, Spain: An LNG tanker lost control going downhill, tipped over and flames immediately appeared between the cabin and trailer. About 20 minutes later, there was a small explosion, a strong hiss and then a much larger explosion, The Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries reported.
“The explosion was very violent, breaking the tank and the truck into several pieces, distorting some of them considerably, ejecting them over considerable distances and causing a pressure wave,” it said.
The driver died and two people suffered burns. The fireball was so immense that those who were injured were more than 650 feet away – a distance greater than the height of the Space Needle in Seattle.
Jerry Havens, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas who has decades of experience in LNG safety, wrote in an analysis filed with federal regulators that the rear part of the tank, including the rear undercarriage of the truck, was ejected 260 feet.
He wrote that mathematical modeling suggested that the fireball, which lasted about 12 seconds, was about 500 feet in diameter and 370 feet in height.
That means the fireball was about four times the diameter and roughly three times the height of a popular Ferris wheel model.
On Sept. 14, 2005, in Fernley, Nevada: A tanker with about 10,000 gallons of LNG started to leak, causing the product to evaporate as soon as it hit the air, “creating a white natural gas cloud,” according to an incident report by the Fire Department in Sparks, Nev.
The vapor then caught fire, producing heat so intense, that firefighters relocated about a half-mile and moved farther back “several times, finally staging approximately one mile from the scene,” the report said.
Businesses were evacuated, a nearby highway was shut down and the fire burned for more than 30 hours, according to news accounts.
Fire officials said static electricity likely ignited the vapor cloud but they could not verify that theory because of a lack of physical evidence, The Leader-Courier reported.
After a vapor cloud of LNG has been released, firefighters need to be mindful of hidden ignition sources, such as the internal combustion engines of fire trucks, passing vehicles and even gas meters with batteries that may create a spark, a 2016 article in International Fire Fighter magazine warned.
On Oct. 20, 2011, in Zarzalico, Spain: A tanker carrying LNG rear-ended a truck that was pulled over on the highway’s shoulder. A fire quickly erupted, killing the tanker driver, according to a study by the Center for Studies on Technological Risk in Barcelona.
“Moments before the explosion, a shrill whistle from the tank was heard, the fire intensified” and firefighters withdrew about 660 feet away, the study said. “Immediately after this, the explosion of the tank occurred.”
Juan Manuel Bonilla, a fire officer from Murcia Fire Service, an author of the study, said in an email that the tanker “opened like a food can.”
Pieces were propelled more than 400 feet. A 200-pound bafflefrom within the tank was hurled about 600 feet across four lanes of traffic, landing at a service station.
“The tanker that had the accident in Zarzalico was single wall with insulation (most of those circulating in Spain) and those that circulate in the United States are double-walled with intermediate vacuum and are safer,” Bonilla said.
Local concerns persist
Larry Nicolais Jr., owner of Constantino’s Catering and Events in Glenburn Township, just outside of Clarks Summit, said he was surprised at how little local attention was being called to the LNG project.
“The silence on the whole issue is most concerning,” he said. “I don’t think that this is on anybody’s radar. I’ve seen no conversation about this anywhere.”
He said Routes 6 and 11 right outside his business were upgraded in 2016 to be wider and smoother, prompting traffic to travel even faster.
“There’s no doubt that it’s gotten worse in the past five years,” he said. “Then you add that kind of volume – never mind what cargo they are carrying.”
He said trucks going through Clarks Summit would face a chokehold of pedestrian crosswalks, narrow streets and slower-moving traffic in a crowded commercial corridor – making that an extraordinarily dense spot for LNG tankers to be passing through – and among the worst possible locations should something go wrong.
Asked to measure his anxiety about the LNG tankers on a scale of one to 10, Nicolais said: “The concern is very high. It’s a 10.”
Written By: Chris Mele for Delaware Currents, with contributions from Wendy Buckley, President of STARS Consulting