Environmental report says Texas facility will cause headaches for residents

HOUSTON — A new federal report found few environmental concerns about a planned $13 billion liquefied natural gas export facility near Freeport but warns that it will cause major headaches for nearby residents.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, tasked with deciding whether the facility can be constructed and operated, found that the project’s biggest impacts won’t be pollution, but rather, the day-to-day stress for residents of a small Texas island who will deal with years of construction in their backyard.

In the preliminary environmental impact statement released Friday, FERC said the project’s impact on bodies of water,  wetlands and air quality — not to mention property values, public safety and public services — would “not be significant” if the company takes proper steps. Those include previous promises made by Freeport LNG about how it will manage construction, as well as several dozen recommendations the agency included in its report.

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The report did, however conclude that “construction traffic would result in significant and unavoidable impacts on the residents” of island town of Quintana, Texas during the more than four years Freeport LNG will spend on construction. The town has 56 residents according to the 2010 Census.

Residents concerned

That statement echoes many of the concerns of residents of Quintana and nearby Freeport, who have submitted filings to the agency outlining their concerns in recent years. In those submission, residents say they worry about the potential for fires and explosions at the plant and say they fear they’ll be inundated with traffic, noise and air pollution associated with construction. At least some of those concerns appear well-founded, according to the study.

FERC said that as of Feb. 28, it had received 186 comment letters on the project, including two petitions — one with 323 signatures opposing the project, and another with 57 signatures “disavowing” the first petition.

A spokeswoman for Freeport LNG said CEO Michael Smith had no comment on the newly-released  draft environmental impact statement, other than to say he looks forward to completing the review and approval process.

‘Greater annoyance’

The study warns that the influx of workers and equipment during construction would mean “greater annoyance” for many in the area that can’t be avoided if the project goes forward. In particular, it highlighted the noise of barge traffic, construction vehicles, delivery trucks and pile driving that residents will likely have to endure.

The study found that on some roads in the area, during peak construction, traffic congestion would get an “F” rating, though with some planning, it could get to at least a “D.” The agency recommended that Freeport LNG develop a transportation plan before construction begins to mitigate the impact of construction and workers and traffic.

Quintana Mayor Gary Wilson could not be reached by phone at his home Monday, and he did not immediately return a message left for him at town hall.

Exporting US gas

The release of the report begins a process in which stakeholders have until May 5 to weigh in on its findings. Earlier this year, Smith said he expects FERC to give the company go-ahead to build the facility in the third quarter.

With the United States awash with cheap natural gas, a growing number of companies are hoping to build facilities to liquefy and export it to other markets — namely Asia — where natural gas commands a much higher price.

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Last year, the Freeport LNG project became one of the first to get approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to export natural gas to Japan and other countries that don’t have free-trade agreements with the United States. A total of six projects have that approval; another 25 are awaiting it. That approval is a critical step toward ensuring the financial viability of the projects.

Though the Department of Energy gives the facility permission to export natural gas, it’s FERC that decides whether the facilities can actually be built and operated. That decision is based largely on considerations about how facilities affect the environment.

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