WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday approved extending federal "wild and scenic" environmental protection to the lower Taunton River in Massachusetts, dealing a blow to developers who want to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on an urbanized stretch of riverbank.
The 242-175 vote, split largely along party lines, came amid Republican complaints the bill was a backdoor way for Democrats to block a proposed LNG plant in the city of Fall River, Mass. at a time when such facilities are sorely needed. GOP lawmakers said the measure underscored how Democrats aren't serious about tackling skyrocketing energy costs.
Bill critics also took aim at the commercialized riverbank area where developers want to build the terminal, saying it was more urban than wild and scenic. On the House floor, they displayed photos of Fall River to press their point.
"If this qualifies as a wild and scenic river ... then downtown Manhattan can be a national forest," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, mocked Fall River's graffiti on bridges and elsewhere, which he blamed on gangs.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., shot back that working people and immigrants in places like Fall River deserve the same environmental protections as wealthy communities.
Frank, who opposes the terminal, said efforts to protect the river began in 1999, three years before the LNG plant was proposed.
The Massachusetts congressional delegation pushed to include the river in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a 1968 law aimed at preserving specially designated rivers.
A National Park Service draft report last year said the lower river met eligibility requirements for wild and scenic status.
Waterways having "outstandingly remarkable" scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other values can be designated as wild and scenic. The designation paves the way for limits on riverbank development and funds for environmental protections.
The proposal by Weaver's Cove Energy, which is owned by Hess LNG, has won Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval.
But the project faces several government obstacles.
The Coast Guard has rejected the Weaver's Cove proposal, citing safety and navigation concerns.
The project is strongly opposed by Massachusetts and Rhode Island officials, who worry it could endanger residents in the densely populated area. A terrorist strike or accident could be devastating, they warn.
The Senate is considering similar legislation.