By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Except for her, the Quintana Town Council meeting has gone completely silent. Mayor James Norvil is preoccupied with his papers. His wife, a councilwoman, is fixated on some point in distant space. Another councilwoman, who once pushed Cornelison off a barstool, looks vaguely annoyed.
On an island where everyone is polite, Cornelison stands apart. A mother of five and a former beautician, she has an easy chattiness, guileless blue eyes and the soul of a tiger.
Before Cornelison moved from Fort Worth six years ago, Quintana enjoyed a sleepy consensus. Despite its proximity to the massive Dow Chemical plant in Freeport, the island has just 53 year-round residents. Almost everybody got along. Almost everybody was welcome for a drink after council meetings.
Cornelison and her husband, Roger, had moved to Quintana to get away, to be near the water, to relax. But Quintana's clubbiness rubbed her the wrong way.
First, she discovered that the then-mayor's husband, long credited as a civic-minded volunteer, was actually on the city payroll. Major scandal. When she heard that the island's in-crowd had decided to back Norvil as the next mayor, she "decided they couldn't just figure that out on their own," she says. She ran against him. She lost.
She made her point: Quintana suddenly had an opposition party, albeit a one-woman operation.
Now, with Quintana weighing one of the most controversial projects to hit the Gulf Coast in decades, Cornelison is again in the fight. Most of the town's political leaders are ready to allow construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal, take the $1 million being offered annually and assume everything will be okay.
This time, she isn't alone. Communities across the country have risen up to stop such projects, citing serious safety concerns.
The Quintana terminal in particular raises several red flags. A key investor is a close friend and business partner of Neil Bush, brother of the president. Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation appears to have carried out a behind-the-scenes campaign with questionable numbers to build the bridge that makes the terminal possible.
The island is barely one mile wide. The terminal's developer, Houston-based Freeport LNG, wants to put it within a mile of Quintana Beach, which draws thousands of Houston-area sunbathers. The tankers would dock less than 1,200 feet from a county RV park, a restaurant and nearly a dozen homes.
Federal regulators appear ready to approve the project. But scientists believe that an incident at either the docks or the terminal could result in a searing fire. That fire would burn so hot that even people another half-mile away would be blistered in 30 seconds.
One of the homes in the potential fire zone is Cornelison's.
"If you do decide to sign that contract, you need to look out for each of us individuals," Cornelison tells the town council. "This council has them by the balls! Don't let them come in here for pennies and ruin our health and lifestyle. Look out for our safety!"
The councilmembers politely look away. Norvil changes the subject.
Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is nothing too fancy -- just a chilled, condensed version of the stuff that heats our stoves and houses. Its appeal is its convenience for transport: Cooled to minus 260 degrees, natural gas becomes a liquid that takes up a lot less space.
The gas is harvested overseas, chilled and shipped in giant tankers to special coastal terminals where it is pumped into huge tanks. (Quintana's tanks would be 180 feet tall and hold some 51 billion gallons of gas.) There, the LNG is heated back into a gas and sent into distribution pipelines.
As far as energy sources go, LNG is relatively simple and clean. The problem is that it's extremely dangerous. If it should escape its tanks or burst through a pipe, its temperature would rise rapidly. Liquid would turn to vapor -- and because it's concentrated 600 times, it's incredibly flammable.
The last time an LNG terminal was built in the United States, Jimmy Carter was president. In later years, there wasn't even enough demand for the four terminals in existence. Two were mothballed in the early 1980s.
A spike in natural gas prices in the late '90s changed everything. "There was a projection for increasing demand, and almost a ceiling on domestic production, what with what we can access and get out of the ground," says Mark Stultz, spokesman for the Natural Gas Supply Association. "And that created opportunities for LNG developers to become competitors."
The shuttered terminals reopened, and the others expanded. Still, the buzz grew. Energy companies drew up plans for new terminals from Maine to Baja California. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, now lists 40 potential proposals. It has received eight applications.
But terminal after terminal has faced intense community opposition. Even though FERC has yet to reject any proposal, numerous projects have been scrapped. California activists stopped projects in Vallejo and Eureka. Even Marathon had to drop its plans for a terminal near Tijuana after the Mexican government announced it was taking the land for "public use" instead.
Neighbors are frightened by the possibility of fire at a terminal: An LNG blaze destroyed virtually one square mile of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944, killing 128 people and injuring 225.