If Lester A. Ettlinger hadn't wanted to meet his neighbors that night in April, the subject of anhydrous ammonia might never have come up.
Solley peninsula residents might not have learned about the hazardous chemical, nor of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s plans to truck it daily into the Brandon Shores power plant. And BGE officials might be concentrating on building their anhydrous ammonia-based anti-pollution system instead of dealing with community outrage.
But Ettlinger, an environmental risk consultant who moved to the area in March, did go to the April 10 Stoney Beach community meeting, hoping to get to know some of his new neighbors. His visit launched him on a three-month crusade against BGE, a movement that continues to gain local support.
"It was incredibly fortunate he was at that meeting," said Marcia Dresnyk, a community leader who organized successful resistance to a proposed racetrack for the Solley area and is working with Ettlinger on the fight against the power plant.
At the meeting, BGE officials on a community-outreach mission presented the company's plan to comply with a court order to reduce emissions coming from nearby coal-fired power plants. Although the BGE representatives didn't say so, Ettlinger realized their anti-pollution system likely would use anhydrous ammonia.
"It was just by accident," said the 61-year-old Ettlinger at his home recently, sipping lemonade and gazing through screen doors that open onto Stoney Creek. "It's like if you're a cop, and you're on vacation and you see a crime being committed right under your nose. Don't you have to do something?"
At that April meeting, Ettlinger - who has studied environmental science and risk management for the past 30 years - asked whether BGE's anti-pollution system would use anhydrous ammonia, whether the company would truck in the chemical or make it on site, and how much of it was going to be at Brandon Shores.
"At this point," Ettlinger said, "a board member who is a policeman gets up, runs to his car and brings back a manual. He says, `If anhydrous ammonia is released, basically we're supposed to run away.'"
The mood of the meeting had changed, and so had Ettlinger's idea of living in the Stoney Beach community. In the next few days he called contacts in government, spoke with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and did some research on the Internet.
And he decided that the power company should not be transporting this substance, a common industrial chemical that can cause severe - or lethal - lung and skin damage upon exposure, through an urban area, on a road where there have been numerous accidents.
"I've been in this business for years, but on a national and international level," said Ettlinger, who has taught physics at the Johns Hopkins University and directed environmental risk management for government nuclear and chemical facilities. "Now I find the hazard in my back yard. And I said, `Gosh, I've got to do something about this.'"
BGE officials insist that their anhydrous ammonia system has more than sufficient safety features and that the sort of accident residents are worried about has never occurred. They also say the company will consider switching to an alternative anti-pollution system, once that system is proven successful at other plants.
Those arguments have had little effect on Ettlinger, or on his growing team of neighborhood activists. This month, the former professor taught a lesson about the chemical to more than 100 residents at a community meeting. Last weekend, he handed out petition forms around a local shopping area.
"I had teen-agers, elderly folks, all wanting to sign," he said. "I've never seen anything quite like it."
At his home, Ettlinger keeps files on anhydrous ammonia, overflowing with newspaper clippings, EPA reports and BGE correspondence. He has researched an alternative emission reduction system that eliminates the need for anhydrous ammonia, even arranging a tour of the only power plant - located in Cape Cod, Mass. - that uses this new technology.
He meticulously keeps a notebook to document his phone calls, conversations and inquiries on the subject.
Strolling by his neighborhood swimming pool, Ettlinger pointed to the looming H. A. Wagner power plant and the Brandon Shore smokestacks just beyond, noting the short distance between the plants and the swimmers - a stretch, he said, that escaped anhydrous ammonia could quickly traverse.
"It's a little ominous," he said. "Kind of like science fiction."
He paused outside the swimming complex, by the nature trail the community association had built.
"I would not have moved here if I knew about this," he said, as he gazed at his community's narrow beaches and the boats on Stoney Creek. "And my neighbors have said if they see a for-sale sign in front of my house, then they're moving right away."
For now, Ettlinger said he's staying put.
"I've seen community groups turn situations around, make companies, governments, institutions pay attention," he said, noting that in past debates he always has been employed as a consultant for the other side - the government and corporations.
"I've seen it happen over and over again."