Md. gas terminal under scrutiny

Officials look for cause at Cove Point for leaks in Pr. George's houses

Dominion blames equipment

July 08, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The federal government is investigating claims that the nation's largest liquid natural gas terminal, located in southern Maryland, is importing a corrosive fuel that may have helped to cause hundreds of gas leaks in Prince George's County.

Among the incidents under scrutiny is a March 28 explosion that flattened a four-bedroom brick home in the District Heights section of the county. The family was out at the time of the blast.

Officials with Washington Gas, which supplies fuel to about 1 million homes near the District of Columbia, said yesterday that the abnormal chemical composition of gas imported through the Cove Point terminal in Calvert County was a "key contributing factor" in making rubber seals deteriorate.

The breakdown of seals in the couplings of gas pipelines led to about 1,400 gas leaks during the past two years, and has required the company to launch a $144 million project to replace lines and equipment, said Tim Sargeant, spokesman for the utility.

"We are experiencing a significant increase in leaks in a 100-square-mile area of Prince George's County," Sargeant said. "We have not ruled out the possibility of a rate increase in the future," to pay for the extensive repairs, he said.

The terminal's owner, Dominion of Richmond, disputed the claims yesterday, saying the source of the problems was Washington Gas' leaky, half-century-old equipment and its improper installation of gas line seals and couplings.

"They have pipelines that can't hold gas, and they are blaming the gas," said Dan Donovan, spokesman for Dominion. "It's like you have a leaky roof, and you blame the rain."

Liquefied natural gas is a form of natural gas cooled to 260 degrees below zero to shrink the fuel, so it can be imported on large ships from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. It is then reheated and returned to a gaseous form.

Cove Point, which reopened in August 2003 after 23 years of dormancy because of low gas prices and other problems, is the largest of four liquefied natural gas importing terminals in the country. Dominion has proposed an $850 million expansion because of rising public demand and a shortage of domestic natural gas supplies.

The branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation that inspects pipelines said yesterday it will investigate claims by Washington Gas, said Damon Hill, spokesman for the agency.

"This is not a common problem, and it's not something we've seen before," Hill said. "But we are going to be looking into what action, if any, would need to be taken on a larger scale to address any safety implications."

A consultant's report commissioned by Washington Gas said that the unusually high number of leaks happened only in a section of southern Prince George's County that received undiluted gas directly from Cove Point.

Other parts of Maryland and other utilities, such as Baltimore Gas and Electric, that receive some of their gas from Cove Point - but always mixed with domestic natural gas - did not report increasing numbers of gas leaks, said Christine Nizer, spokeswoman for the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is also investigating the leaks.

Washington Gas started receiving gas from Cove Point in August 2003, when the terminal reopened, according to the consultant's report by Environ International Co. of Groton, Mass. Washington Gas experienced abnormally high numbers of leaks during the following winters. Out of 3,244 gas leak repairs last year, an estimated 1,400 were in Prince George's County, Sargeant said.

Environ concluded that the leaks were caused by aging seals - some a half-century old - that came into contact with cold temperatures and gas with lower than normal concentrations of a compound called pentane, which caused some of the seals to shrink.

Washington Gas officials concluded from the report that the Cove Point gas was the problem. Dominion accused Washington Gas of misinterpreting the report and underplaying the central role of its own aging equipment. "Stop mischaracterizing natural gas study results," Dominion said to Washington Gas in a news release.

The gas met all of Washington Gas' and the federal government's strict guidelines for purity and quality, Dominion officials said.

The Prince George's County Fire Department is investigating three natural gas explosions in homes during this period, none of which caused injuries, said Mark E. Brady, spokesman for the agency.

"Fortunately, the great majority of these incidents result in leaks outside," Brady said.

Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson said yesterday he is frustrated with Washington Gas' failure to provide information to county officials about the gas problems.

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