"We started late last week," said Doug Pizzi, a spokesman for Texas-based Excelerate Energy, the company building the $200 million Northeast Gateway terminal.
There are few signs in Salem Harbor that work has begun on what Excelerate is calling the world's second deepwater LNG port, a project it says will dramatically increase the supply of natural gas in New England.
"There has been a crew boat going now and then from the Congress Street bridge," Salem Harbormaster Peter Gifford said.
That boat carries staff from an office Excelerate opened recently in Shetland Properties, a waterfront office park behind Pickering Wharf. The office, which will monitor the LNG port, will remain in operation after construction is completed in the fall.
The real action is over the horizon, where 170 crew members arrived Sunday morning aboard a large barge, the Lone Star Horizon, loaded with pipes, equipment and its own cooks. They have begun laying a connector pipe that will wind its way along the ocean bottom from the deepwater port to an existing natural gas pipeline that runs underwater from Salem to Weymouth.
As the connector pipe is laid, a survey ship, the Sun New York, is following the barge to monitor its progress.
In the coming weeks and months, more vessels will arrive and work will intensify on what is largely an underwater project. When it is done, the only thing visible above the water will be a mooring marker about the size of a beach ball.
Underwater, however, workers will build a 35-foot high buoy - really a large docking facility - that will be raised to the surface when Excelerate's fleet of modified LNG tankers arrive. Those tankers, carrying supercooled liquefied gas, are 1,000 feet long, or the length of three football fields.
The tankers have equipment on board that will heat the liquid and turn it back to gas. It will then be pumped through this docking port and into the pipeline.
All of the construction is scheduled to be completed by the fall.
"We want to have gas flowing by the end of December," Pizzi said.
This is Excelerate's second deepwater LNG port. Its Gulf Gateway Energy Bridge is in operation more than 100 miles south of New Orleans.
The Northeast Gateway project is the first of two LNG ports proposed off the North Shore. Suez North American hopes to have its Neptune LNG terminal in operation by the end of 2009. The company recently signed a lease for office space in Gloucester.
Area fishermen have strongly opposed the LNG projects. They argue that the ports are located in key fishing grounds and will severely limit their ability to make a living.
As part of an agreement with the state, Excelerate has taken steps to mitigate any harm the construction and port operation may cause. As an example, it recently installed buoys in the construction area that will serve as a whale detection system.
The Northeast Gateway, a company official said, will supply 400 million cubic feet per day of natural gas, or about 18 percent of New England's current supply.