Distrigas Gives $1M in Heating Aid

After facing years of harsh scrutiny as a potentially catastrophic Boston terrorist target, owners of the liquefied natural gas terminal in Everett yesterday committed $1 million a year to help low-income Massachusetts residents pay their gas utility bills.

Teaming up with Joseph P. Kennedy II’s Citizens Energy Corp., which operates a well-known discount heating oil program, Distrigas of Massachusetts LLC said about 6,500 Bay State households will be able to get $150 credits each year under the program.

The aid will be available on a first-come, first-served basis to families and individuals whose annual household income is low enough that they qualify for federal fuel assistance — typically $37,000 for a family of four — and some people earning more who prove to Citizens Energy’s satisfaction they face a true financial hardship.

The Distrigas-Citizens program will modestly increase available help. The state-federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program serves more than 135,000 Bay State households every year, but chronically runs out of funds before the winter heating season is through.

KeySpan Energy Delivery New England, the biggest gas utility in Eastern Massachusetts, provides discounts that average $213 annually for 34,000 of its nearly 800,000 area customers, said spokeswoman Carmen Fields. Those discounts are subsidized by consumers and businesses paying standard rates.

While it may only marginally increase benefits available to Bay Staters struggling with gas bills, the Distrigas project could generate some community good will.

Kennedy and Distrigas officials unveiled the program at a media event at the Everett home of Joe Murphy, a World War II veteran who said that “the program will make a real difference in my household budget. It’s become tougher and tougher to heat my house as costs have gone up and temperatures have gone down.”

“I think it was a very good move on Distrigas’s part to recognize that there are people who are having trouble paying their heating bills in this state,” said Angela M. O’Connor, vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s biggest business lobby.

A spokesman for Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has been a leading critic of public-safety precautions for the Distrigas operation, praise the new fuel aid program but said it hardly mollifies the city’s concerns.

“We always encourage companies to be good corporate citizens and work in partnership with our nonprofits. Having said that, it doesn’t change an ongoing public safety problem that the city’s been facing since 9/11,” said Seth Gitell, Menino’s press secretary. Asked whether it looked like Distrigas was trying [to] generate positive publicity to allay homeland security concerns, Gitell said: “We’re not going to say anything negative about a company committing $1 million to some of our neediest citizens.”

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, national security officials ordered Boston Harbor shut down to prevent an attack on the Everett site and diverted an incoming tanker to Louisiana. After LNG tankers resumed deliveries with armed Coast Guard escorts, police snipers, and bomb-detecting scuba divers, scientists and public officials debated for years what could happen to Boston if an LNG vessel or the Everett terminal were attacked.

Last month, after a year of review, the US Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories warned that an LNG-laden tanker hit by a missile or USS Cole-style suicide boat attack could inflict second- degree burns on people up to 7,000 feet away from the vessel. The 166-page report warned of “major injuries and significant damage to structures” 1,300 to 2,000 feet away, a risk zone that encompasses much of downtown Boston and densely populated areas of South Boston, East Boston, and Chelsea.

Despite concerns about the risks of having LNG shipped and stored in Boston Harbor, state officials and business groups such as Associated Industries call the Distrigas facility crucial to ensuring adequate gas supplies in Massachusetts. Over the course of a year, the Distrigas plant supplies about 20 percent of the state’s gas, and as much as 40 percent of supply on the coldest winter days. It also is a key fuel supply for a nearby electric generating station that produces most of Boston’s electricity.