Economic boon or potential disaster?

Calvert neighbors, firm debate safety of natural gas facility

April 05, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

LUSBY - For two decades, the half-mile-long steel platform off Cove Point has been one of the Chesapeake Bay's hottest fishing spots, a magnet for rockfish and anglers alike.

But soon the pack of fishing boats may have to give way to huge tankers three football fields long and bearing a volatile cargo. With the nation said to be in the throes of an energy crisis, a Texas company wants to resume imports of liquefied natural gas through a long-dormant shipping terminal on the Calvert County shore.

Williams Gas Pipeline, based in Houston, has applied for federal approval to bring up to 90 tankers a year up the bay starting next spring to unload liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Ashore, the superchilled fuel would be warmed to air temperature, then pumped by underground pipeline along the East Coast to heat and light millions of homes and businesses.

If approved, the Cove Point facility - mothballed since the end of the last energy crisis in the late 1970s and purchased last June by Williams - would become the fourth and largest LNG terminal in North America. The company plans to spend $103 million to upgrade it and could hire up to 60 workers.

"It's a good fit to us, because it's very close to our market area," says James Shannon, director of field operations for Williams in Charlottesville, Va. The firm owns 27,300 miles of pipelines crisscrossing the country, and plans to import LNG from Trinidad and Venezuela to feed a surging demand for the fuel, which has more than doubled in price in two years.

The proposal is welcomed by Calvert County's commissioners, who say reopening the terminal would yield $2 million a year in needed tax revenue for the state's fastest-growing county. "I think we all agree that it's a good project, one that would help the county," says David F. Hale, president of the five-member commission.

But the prospect chills many residents living in splendid isolation in the shadow of the Cove Point Lighthouse and in burgeoning bayfront communities to the south. With water on three sides, the point's lone access road runs past the terminal and its four huge, white LNG storage tanks. Residents on dead-end, dirt side roads fear that an accident - or possibly a terrorist attack - could incinerate their bayview homes and maybe them, too.

"If it blows, if there is an accident, there's very little chance that we could get out, except perhaps by water," says Patricia G. Erickson, a writer in her 70s who has lived with her husband at Cove Point Beach for 20 years.

"I don't think we're very happy about it at all," says Peter D. Waters, 59, president of the 240-family Cove Point Beach Association. "There's a lot of risks involved," says Waters, an engineer who works on cruise missiles at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in neighboring St. Mary's County.

Fishermen and boaters also are upset, worrying that their livelihood and recreation will suffer if the government bans other vessels for miles around to protect the fuel-filled tankers.

"Keeping us off those trolling grounds, that can be devastating," says Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charterboat Association, which represents charter fishing skippers, many of them docked at Solomons just south of Cove Point. "At certain times of the year, that is the [fishing] spot."

Williams officials note that the terminal operated without major disruption from 1978 to 1980, unloading 90 tankers before it shut down because of a pricing dispute with LNG suppliers in Algeria.

Columbia Gas, the terminal's original owner, reopened it in 1995 to help out in peak winter heating months. About 25 people now staff the facility, which takes gas pumped in by pipeline and chills it to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, then stores it in four insulated tanks able to hold a total of 5 billion cubic feet of gas in liquid form.

If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves reopening the terminal, Williams plans to build a fifth insulated tank that could hold another 2.5 billion cubic feet of LNG.

Company officials say the facility is, and will be, safe. Liquefied natural gas will not burn, though gas vapors mixed with air are highly flammable once the liquid begins "boiling" at minus-259 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company plans to overhaul the terminal's 1970s-era controls and safety systems, replacing manually operated switches and dials with a centralized, computer-operated command center. Remote sensors to be installed in all buildings will be sensitive enough to "see" a match-size flame from 100 feet away, says Michael E. Gardner, the facility's manager. An automatic fire-suppression system is in place to quench fires before they have a chance to grow.

Safety is the main concern of people living near the terminal. The number of homes within two miles has practically doubled since the last tanker called more than 20 years ago, growing from 3,200 housing units to 6,200 housing units, according to county figures.

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