Feds suspend rule that would have allowed ‘bomb trains’ in South Jersey

The Trump administration had adopted the rule permitting rail transport of liquified natural gas

By: - September 1, 2023 1:58 pm

Environmentalists have long fought a proposal in South Jersey to build a terminal in Gibbstown and rail line to transport flammable liquified natural gas from Pennsylvania for overseas export. Critics say the recent train derailment in Ohio, which released toxic chemicals and required widespread evacuations, should spur authorities to stop the Gibbstown plan. (Getty Images)

Federal transportation officials announced Friday they have suspended a Trump-era rule that allowed rail transport of liquified natural gas, a decision environmentalists celebrated as another blow to an energy company’s plan to move the gas through South Jersey for overseas export.

The rule suspension doesn’t mean rail transport of the gas, known as LNG, is dead. Instead, federal officials will start a rulemaking process next year to decide the fate of train and truck transport of LNG, with a final rule expected in 2025.

Until then, the rule suspension will protect public health and the environment until officials can evaluate the risks of such transport, give developers a chance to put protections in place, and provide more time for the public to comment, according to the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Critics have called trains carrying LNG “bomb trains” because the super-cooled substance’s vapors can be flammable and explosive. Such transport was not allowed without a special permit until the Trump administration changed the rules. The South Jersey plan was widely considered a test case of the loosened rules.

Under that plan first unveiled in 2019, New Fortress Energy proposed moving LNG by truck and train from Wyalusing in northeastern Pennsylvania to a planned export terminal along the Delaware River in Gibbstown in Gloucester County.

Friday’s rule suspension was just the latest setback for that plan. Federal transportation officials in April denied the company’s bid for a special permit to transport LNG by rail, and several environmental advocacy groups and a coalition of states also have challenged the plan in court.

A New Fortress spokesman did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

Critics have warned the plan would expose nearly 2 million residents who live along the proposed transport routes to potential derailments, explosions, and spills, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, they celebrated the rule suspension but called on the Biden administration to adopt a permanent rule banning LNG transport altogether.

“LNG is a volatile substance that can lead to fires and even explosions,” said Kimberly Ong, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year underscores how serious a train derailment involving hazardous substances can be.”

Matt Smith is the New Jersey state director of Food & Water Watch.

“Suspending the outrageously dangerous Trump bomb train rule is a welcome relief to the communities that would be turned into sacrifice zones for a billionaire hedge fund tycoon to bet big on dirty gas exports,” said Smith, referring to New Energy Fortress CEO Wes Edens.

The LNG controversy should prod policymakers on both the federal and state levels to do more to control climate change, Smith added.

“If our political leaders believe their own rhetoric about the climate crisis, then they must take appropriate action — and that begins by stopping new fossil fuel proposals immediately,” he said. “That’s a critical first step towards any real plan to address the climate crisis. We can’t dig the hole even deeper and that’s exactly what is happening without definitive action.”

Not everyone welcomed the rule suspension.

Union official Greg Lalevee said policymakers shouldn’t be deterred by it and squander New Jersey’s opportunity to be a net exporter of natural gas. Lalevee is business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, which represents more than 8,000 heavy equipment operators, mechanics, and surveyors.

“They talk about trucks and trains, but pipelines are the safest way, and the same folks will protest that. This seems to be a beard for the complete shutdown of the usage of natural gas,” he said.

As the feds begin the process of establishing a new rule, Lalevee said, “I hope that when they take comments for the rulemaking, they take them open-mindedly.”

“Policymakers have to take a real look at what’s feasible, what’s affordable, and what’s clean, and I don’t believe that completely abandons natural gas,” he added.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.