An energy boom in Calvert

Southern Maryland could benefit from energy bill provisions that make expansion of its liquid natural gas terminal attractive to investors and a new nuclear reactor a possibility.

August 21, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

COVE POINT - Michael Frederick pedals a bicycle down a mine-shaft-like tunnel that runs deep underneath the Chesapeake Bay. On either side of the artery loom stainless steel pipes coursing with liquid natural gas chilled to 260 degrees below zero, so cold it could crack iron.

At the end of the mile-long passageway, he hops an elevator up into blinding sunlight, where a tanker ship the length of three football fields is moored. Workers in blaze orange jumpsuits guide robotic arms sucking 2.7 billion cubic feet of supercooled Egyptian gas out of the ship's gut - enough to heat 9.2 million homes for a day.

This futuristic scene at the Dominion Cove Point liquid natural gas terminal, where Frederick is manager, is just one example of how the nation's changing energy needs are altering the face of Southern Maryland. As the price of oil and gas surges to record highs, the economy of this once-sleepy landscape of tobacco farms is booming as a center for alternative fuel and focal point of the Bush administration's energy policies.

Cove Point is already the nation's largest liquid natural gas terminal, and the energy bill recently signed by the president contains regulatory changes to make a proposed $850 million expansion attractive to investors.

Just down the shore, the owners of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant - Maryland's largest power generator, cranking out 20 percent of the state's electricity - are vying to start building the nation's first new reactor since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The addition of a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs, using millions of dollars in federal subsidies from the energy bill, would nearly double the plant's output of electricity.

The southern tip of Calvert County is becoming Maryland's energy coast.

Both plants have helped to transform rural Calvert County into the state's fastest-growing jurisdiction, with a population that has almost quadrupled, to about 85,000, since they opened in the 1970s. Major expansions at Calvert Cliffs and Cove Point - the county's No. 1 and No. 2 taxpayers - could spark an even more intense rate of growth.

Together, the two proposed construction projects dangle the prospect of more than $3 billion in new investment for the county, creating more than 3,000 construction jobs, 425 permanent positions and $21 million a year in additional local tax revenues - a more than doubling from these plants.

The county needs the money for its strained roads and schools, local officials say. More importantly, Calvert could become a magnet for high-paying jobs if nuclear power and liquid gas become growth industries, as they were during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

"When there is an energy crisis, it's good for Calvert County," says Linda S. Vassallo, the county's economic development director.

But each project carries thorny side issues. For the nuclear plant, it's the disposal of radioactive waste. For the gas terminal, it's the digging of a 48-mile pipeline across the private property of about 350 landowners in three counties. And for both, it's the specter of terrorism or a terrible accident.

"It's a quandary: prosperity, jobs or safety," said Teresa Powell, 44, a mother of four whose subdivision lies across the street from the entrance to Calvert Cliffs.

"The nuclear plant truly scares me to death. And I think having it and the liquid natural gas plant so close to each other should be an absolute no-no with the world the way it is right now," Powell said. "We're collateral damage, just toast, if anything bad happens."

Robert Fenwick, director of emergency management for Calvert County, said the county's unusual geography - a peninsula with one major road - creates challenges in planning for evacuations should disaster strike. But he said the county's 800 emergency responders are well drilled and as prepared as they can be.

"It's fortunate that there's a lot of open space surrounding the plants, with not a lot of people right nearby," Fenwick said. "There is much insanity out there that we can't control."

Squat, beige temples

Calvert Cliffs' two quarter-century-old nuclear reactors rise amid lush forest beside the Chesapeake Bay, looking like a pair of squat, beige, windowless cement temples crowned with domes.

A swirl of waves leading away from shore is evidence of underwater pipes shooting 2.4 million gallons of warm water per minute into the bay from the plant's steam turbines.

Behind the reactors, a dozen sets of power lines - crackling with 1,700 megawatts of electricity - feed into an electrical grid supplying the Mid-Atlantic region with power.

In a wooded area a few hundred yards north, Constellation Energy Group and its business partners are proposing to build a third reactor at a cost of $2.5 billion to $3 billion, said Michael Wallace, executive vice president of Constellation. The number of jobs at the plant would rise from about 900 to at least 1,300.

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