February 18. 2014 9:14PM

LNG plant safety, economics on the table in Groveton

Union Leader Correspondent

NORTHUMBERLAND — A proposal to build a $100 million liquefied natural gas (LNG) production facility is making town leaders bullish on the future.

On Feb. 11, representatives of Clear Energy of Marlborough, Mass., presented plans for White Mountain LNG, whose focal point would be a plant that could produce up to 300,000 gallons per day of LNG that would be shipped by truck to customers in lower New England.

Storage tanks capable of holding 1.8 million gallons of LNG would be situated south of the Wausau paper mill site, in the mill's former wastewater treatment lagoons. Evan Coleman, Clear Energy's chief operating officer, estimated the LNG plant would bring an estimated 84 jobs to Groveton village, and generate some $1.7 million in taxes annually to the town of Northumberland.

Despite the soaring, seasonal cost of natural gas, Coleman said it's actually a good thing for LNG producers because on cold days, utilities will often switch to LNG rather than using natural gas.

Coleman said the Portland Regional Natural Gas pipeline system at the former paper mill ties into the TransCanada system. Because of that, the Groveton plant would be less affected by wintertime price swings because it could circumvent other, more expensive suppliers, he said.

Based on government and industry forecasts, Coleman said his company doesn't "anticipate us getting to a price that would make our plant (in Groveton) uneconomical."

Coleman said the decision to build was ultimately based on the receptivity of the community to the plan, the availability of a skilled workforce and the presence of the pipeline system.

He said under a best-case scenario, the plant, made up of prefabricated modules assembled in and carted from Arizona, would be operational by spring 2015; the groundbreaking is tentatively set for this April.

Liquefied natural gas is produced by cooling natural gas until it becomes a colorless, odorless liquid that is less than half the weight of water. LNG is normally warmed to make natural gas to be used in heating and cooking as well as electricity generation and other industrial uses. It can be kept as a liquid to be used as an alternative transportation fuel.

Although the LNG plant is going to require state and federal permits, as well as authorization from the Northumberland Planning Board, Coleman said the expectation is that production could begin in 2015.

Near high school

Northumberland Board of Selectmen Chairman Jim Weagle said Monday selectmen have been asked by Coleman to issue a formal letter stating the board and community's support for the project.

He said Groveton, having once been home to two paper mills, is "used to truck traffic," adding that the location of the LNG plant was in a buffer zone that safely separated it from Groveton High School.

SAU 58 Superintendent Carl Ladd agreed the village is used to having potentially volatile neighbors.

"The reality is that we had a paper mill located right next door to the elementary school with tremendous stocks of chemicals," Ladd said. "Trains went through there with all kinds of chemicals and fuel and we managed to survive that."

Although unable to attend the Feb. 11 meeting, Ladd said several of the SAU's school board members did "and from what I understand, they feel pretty safe with the safety protocols that the plant would put in place. We are an economically depressed community and whatever we can do to support economic growth in the community and the region we need to stand behind to the extent that we can."

Groveton is a small place and "no matter where the industry is going to be located, if it's anywhere in the village, we're all susceptible to what happens," Ladd said.

He added: "Certainly, we'll be in touch with the plant operators as they're building the plant and if there are some safety protocols we need to take, we'll do that and they'll become part of our emergency plan and we'll address issues as they come up."

The promise of White Mountain LNG is that its presence will leverage additional economic activity in and around Northumberland, Weagle said.

"That's a big thing about this, not only that these guys are going to be a huge taxpayer and employer, but they can pull other businesses in," he said.