Ramp-up of LNG in Europe a health risk
The residents of the Spanish town of Ferrol have lived for years in the shadow of an LNG terminal, but a growing body of research suggests such infrastructure poses a health risk to communities like theirs – which should serve as a wake-up call as we brace ourselves for major build-out of LNG in Europe.
Galicia, Spain – The city of Ferrol in northwest Spain was “completely ugly” in the words of my plain-speaking cab driver – and sadly he was not wrong. Its once-pretty fishing port eclipsed by a massive LNG terminal, the fate of this historic bay, long an important naval base, raises some much-needed public health questions at a time when construction of LNG in Europe is ramping up.
Descending along the spectacular Galician coastline from the charismatic regional capital of A Coruña, over verdant green hills and across glistening blue rivers, the outskirts of Ferrol come as a shock – lurid industrial towers and huge warehouses obscure the sea view; behind them a giant LNG terminal interrupts the coastline further.
The Mugardos LNG terminal is located dangerously close – an astonishing 70 metres – from the closest housing in the Ferrol suburb of Mehá, and has been the subject of controversy since it was built more than 15 years ago but the residents’ voices have gone unheard. Now, with the Ukraine war and Europe’s pivot towards LNG, the question of whether gas infrastructure should be built in very close proximity to residential areas needs some serious examination.
Living in close proximity to an LNG terminal puts people within the blast danger zone from potentially catastrophic gas explosions, as well as methane leaks. Living within a 3-mile radius also brings with it a number of health risks associated with long-term exposure to toxic air pollution, including respiratory infections, lung cancer and heart disease, according to a recent report by the Sierra Club, a U.S.-based environmental NGO. Aside from pollution from the terminal itself, air quality is also compromised by the increased ship, truck and sometimes rail transport that come with LNG projects.
Children are particularly vulnerable, and studies have found a link between air pollution and their cognitive development. In Spain’s second largest city, Barcelona – itself the site of Spain’s oldest LNG terminal – a study carried out last year estimated that 1,084 new cases of childhood asthma are attributable to NO2 each year, which represents 48% of the total annual cases. Cutting back air pollution around schools would significantly reduce childhood asthma cases, found the research led by the University of Barcelona. Multiple studies have also found a link between exposure to traffic-induced pollution in pregnant women and preterm birth, low birth wait as well as stillbirth.
Luz Marina Torrente, a 67 year-old resident of Mehá, has lived in her family home that is 100 metres from the Mugardos LNG terminal since birth. She is in the “front line” of housing facing the terminal, in her own words, but just behind her street there is more housing, a school, a football pitch and a children’s sports centre – all right by a road where tanks thunder past on their way to the terminal. She is afraid for the health and safety of her granddaughter who lives nearby but also the many other children that use the school and facilities in this once “pretty and quiet” area, she said.
Many old people inhabit these streets, who – like her – have lived here their whole lives. But Torrente believes their health has been compromised by living in dangerously close proximity to the terminal. “It’s very hard to prove because nobody wants to do an in-depth [health impact] study and if you go to the doctor and say there are lots of people here with sore throats or with lung cancer they just tell you it’s the same everywhere,” she told Gas Outlook. Local government is on the side of Reganosa, the LNG company, and is not willing to address the issue either, she said.
Around 7’000 people live within a 2’000-metre radius of the Mugardos terminal. This long-suffering community not only has to contend with the LNG terminal but also a nearby petrochemicals complex that emits toxic fumes, Torrente said. “Almost every day you can’t open the window because the smell is so bad, especially if it’s windy.. you open the window and the fumes get into the whole house and it makes you feel sick, so sick.”
LNG in Europe ramping up
Local environmental groups have long argued that new LNG infrastructure in Spain is unnecessary, since current plants have been used at well below their capacity in recent years due to lack of demand. LNG terminals that are not being used pose a stranded asset risk.
Last year, existing regasification plants in Spain operated at less than a third of their capacity, according to Ecologists in Action. Despite that, several LNG start-ups are on the cards, including EL Musel regasification plant in the northern city of Gijón – which not long ago was ruled as illegal – and two new terminals in Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
And Spain is just the tip of the iceberg insofar as new LNG in Europe goes. Seven floating LNG terminals are due to – or have already – come online this winter in Germany, the Netherlands and between Estonia and Finland, to process gas from non-Russian sources. In the rush to build new infrastructure in Germany to replace lost Russian gas, reports suggest that environmental impact assessments – normally a requirement – are being bypassed. Build-out of LNG terminals in the U.S. has also accelerated since the start of the Ukraine war.
Some of these are in very close proximity to busy, residential areas of cities, putting coastal communities at risk – and often some of the city’s poorest residents. The Sierra Club report documents the multiple risks, largely to low-income people of colour, from two new LNG projects in the region, Texas LNG and Rio Grande LNG.
Most worryingly, communities within a 3-mile radius of the proposed terminals are exposed to more fine particulate matter air pollution, known as PM2.5, on an annual basis than over 80% of the U.S. population, which can cause “severe and long-lasting negative health impacts” including premature death, the report said. It’s a stark warning, and one that we must heed if we don’t want some of the most vulnerable in our societies to be at risk.
In Barcelona, I live less than three miles from Enagás’ LNG terminal, a surreal site sandwiched between the glittering Mediterranean and Barcelona’s medieval city centre. Luckily, I am probably at a safe distance – but many are sadly not. The densely-packed El Raval and Gothic, where many low-income and large immigrant families live, are the districts closest to the terminal.
LNG in Europe can pose a health risk in less obvious ways too. Fish are being contaminated due to the use of biocides to keep the pipes of the ship clean at Wilhelmshaven LNG, Sascha Boden, an energy and climate protection expert at Environmental Action Germany, told me, threatening the livelihoods of the clammers who “have a long tradition in Lower Saxony,” and those who have long enjoyed eating their produce.