Courier Weekend

St. Stephen, NB

Guest Commentary

2005 December 2

Outlining the consequences of an LNG disaster

I am writing to share my views regarding the potential impact of the LNG import and storage terminals proposed in the Passamaquoddy Bay region. Although my primary residence is near Annapolis, Md., I have visited and vacationed in the Passamaquoddy Bay area for a number of years, and own property on Campobello Island. While I believe there are many sound reasons to oppose the development of these LNG facilities, I wish to address only one where I believe I have some rather unique experience and perspective — public health and safety.

I am a former Rear Admiral / Assistant Surgeon General. Much of my career has been spent in preparation for, and response to, naturaI and human caused emergencies and disasters. My area of specialty is the psychological and social consequences of these types of events. For many years, I directed the U.S. government's domestic disaster mental health program. I have been directly involved in the response to countless naturaI disasters and many human caused events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, to name a few. Most recently, I temporarily returned to federal service as part of the U.S. Government's response to Hurricane Katrina. I know first hand, the terrible physical, psychological, and community pain and suffering that invariably results from natural, accidental, and intentional disasters. My experiences will not allow me to sit on the sidelines while people in an area I treasure are placed in harm's way by a few who would take such enormous risks with the health and safety of so many.

It is difficult to describe the scope, intensity, and duration of the physical, psychosocial, and community suffering that attends major disasters such as would occur should there be an accidental or intentional (terrorist) LNG release. Health consequences include freeze and heat burns as well as asphyxiation. The most probable health and medical consequence is burns. Burns are among the most painful and scarring (literally and figuratively) types of injuries that survivors and their families can experience. The treatment of burns is complex, long, expensive, and painful even when treatment facilities are easily accessible which is not the case in the Passamaquoddy Bay region. I have seen first hand the suffering that primary victims and the families of dead and surviving victims must endure. It is horrific. To complicate matters, the ratio of psychological to medical casualties in such events typically is 4–100:1. In addition to the physical health consequences, community friction, substance abuse, family discord, reduced productivity, accidents, clinical depression, and a host of other psychiatric disorders are more common than not. The bottom line is that, in the event of a disastrous release (like an explosion), adverse consequences will be so massive that public health, medical, and emergency management systems on both sides of the border can never be adequately prepared.

In an attempt to minimize and divert attention from adverse health and medical consequences, marketers of LNG import terminals will attempt to describe safety measures they propose. They will attempt to limit dialogue to discussion of what they will do to prevent disasters. They will studiously avoid discussion of what they will do if disasters occur. How many hospitals with specialized burn units are they prepared to build and sustain on both sides of the border? Are they prepared to escrow sufficient funds to fully pay for the medical, public health, psychological, and social consequences of an accidental or intentional disaster? I suspect not. They will use whatever legal, corporate, and governmental manoeuvres are available to assure that the risks, costs, and burdens are born by anybody but them.

Even attempting to prepare an effective response for such an explosion is extremely complex, difficult, and expensive. In the Passamaquoddy Bay region this is made more complex as a result of the involvement of numerous emergency response jurisdictions in two countries. As we have witnessed first hand in recent months in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even in areas with long mitigation and preparedness histories and massive resources, the human and economic costs can be almost beyond comprehension. Individuals, families, and communities will never be the same.

Finally, I would like to comment on the psychosocial impact of extreme environmental change. While change is part of all personal and community life, it is seldom easy and often has unanticipated consequences. Even in the absence of an LNG explosion, such massive industrialization of a rural and small town environment will unquestionably result in a massive change in daily life, community, and culture. The scale and proximity of buildings, storage facilities, and giant ships is hard to envision in an environment where the largest elements of the environment are buildings only a few stories high and tall trees — where views are now largely vertical and long range, they will be massively horizontal and up close. Where there is now quiet, there will be continuous noise. When there is now darkness, there will be constant light. Where there is now free movement on the water, there will be armed control and restriction of movement. Where there is now the smell of the sea, there will likely be ever-present smells not found in nature. These sensory changes will intensify and will be irreversible. The consequences of the choice to build and operate LNG import facilities, and the cascading heavy industrialization that will follow, will be permanent. I suspect that the residents (perhaps more accurately the former residents) of areas like northern New Jersey and Lake Charles, Louisiana, would not choose to repeat this devolution of their surroundings.

As the environment changes, people will change, their stressors will change, and their relationships to one another and the world around them will change. To oversimplify, our personal view of the world, and our place in it, is heavily influenced by what we routinely see and other sensory input. The recently reported (Bangor Daily News, 9/30/05) incredulous statement by a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) official that these facilities can be built with no environmental impact is at best simply wrong and, at worst, a manipulative lie. Such comments speak volumes about FERC officials' estimate of the intelligence of their audiences. The physical characteristics of this area, and its personal positive impact, has attracted and inspired us for hundreds of years. When changed by LNG and all it brings, we will want to look away.

Sometimes adverse changes are thrust upon people, as in the recent hurricanes. In some cases, these changes are the unintended and unanticipated result of conscious choice. It is difficult to imagine that people on the U.S. side of the Passamaquoddy Bay region would knowingly choose LNG, given the certain adverse consequences. It is difficult to imagine that Canadians and their government would allow themselves to be put at such risk by others.

Let me be clear. In my view, industrial development and growth is positive and necessary. At the same time, most adverse health, safety, and psychosocial consequences of this development can be significantly reduced when it occurs in areas where such development already exists and/or where health and safety issues can be reduced and managed far more than they can ever be in the Passamaquoddy Bay area.

In my view, there is no economic incentive worth the price to be paid by placing the public's health and safety at such risk. Having said that, I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge, and help remediate, the poor economic conditions that cause people to even consider placing themselves, and their families and neighbours on both sides of the border, so directly in harm's way. Poor economic conditions themselves bring with them adverse health consequences. In many ways, these LNG proposals seem like offering tainted food to hungry people with all the health and ethical implications that metaphor implies. We must take extreme care to not blame hungry people for being tempted to accept even tainted food. Unfortunately, pain has already been inflicted while individual, community, and international relationships continue to be damaged.

If anything positive is to come out of these proposals, it is, hopefully, an enhanced sense of understanding and shared values among people of Maine, Canada, and the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Hopefully, that positive effect will not only help defeat these dangerous proposals but create a more positive environment of mutual aid and support that, in the end, will most certainly have a positive effect on the physical, psychological, social, and economic health of the region.

RADM Brian W. Flynn, Ed.D.
Assistant Surgeon General
U.S. Public Health Service (Ret.)


© 2005 Advocate Media
Article republished on Save Passamaquoddy Bay website with permission.

The Saint Croix Courier, St. Stephen, NB