Kathy Seay asked whether Dundalk would smell like New Jersey. Lee McClelland wondered whether boaters would be trapped in Bear Creek when tankers came through. Harry Wujek wanted to know whether his heating bill would go down.
And all expressed concerns about the safety of a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point, a plan that brought them and about 100 other people to a public forum last night at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus.
"As safety goes, you're guilty until proven innocent," said Earl O. Siler, a Dundalk resident who works at the steel mill adjoining the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard site where global power supplier AES Corp. envisions building the $400 million LNG terminal. "It seems like they're taking precautions, but nothing is 100 percent safe."
Shipments of the super-chilled liquefied gas would arrive by tanker, and 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas would be pumped daily from the plant through a large pipeline to a distribution center in Pennsylvania.
The Arlington-Va. based company set up displays around the college cafeteria meeting site, intending that people walk around cocktail-party style and talk with project planners. But the people demanded that company officials answer questions in an open forum for all to hear.
Aaron Samson, the company's director of LNG projects, said he understands the concerns even though no residential property would be nearer than a mile away.
"One point three miles doesn't sound like a big enough space," he said. "The industry has a tremendous record of safety. This is not the only hazardous product to come into the Baltimore harbor."
He said the plant would create considerable local tax revenue and 40 to 50 permanent jobs, in addition to 500 construction jobs.
AES officials have been quietly meeting for months with residents and elected officials on Baltimore County's east side. Just before Christmas, company officials held a buffet dinner at a popular Dundalk seafood restaurant for community leaders.
"They say it's perfectly safe. ... They say it's good for Baltimore County," said Ann Bonner, vice president of the Greater Dundalk Community Council. "But I want to talk to people who have lived with something like this. I'm in an info-gathering stage."
An LNG terminal at Cove Point, on the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County, operated by another company, is the nation's largest.
"Safety is the primary issue," said Wujek, president of the North Point Peninsula Community Coordinating Council. "There may not be people living within one mile of where the ships go, but there are people working within that mile. There are people on boats. You have to examine everything."
Similar projects proposed in areas such as New England and California have met with resistance from some residents and environmentalists, according to news reports. Concerns have ranged from tanker spills to terrorist attacks that could target such facilities, resulting in an explosion imperiling nearby neighborhoods, according to newspapers in those areas.
Federal regulations require six months of public outreach efforts. But Linda J. McCarty, a spokeswoman for AES, said that the six-month period won't begin until the company files a formal application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"There's going to be a lot of opportunity for public input," she said. "In smaller groups, people are more apt to ask the questions they really want to ask."
McClelland, a retired iron worker who spends a lot of time on the water, was assured that any inconvenience from tanker traffic to Bear Creek boaters would be minimal, but he was not convinced. "It's big money against small people," he said.
Company officials promised to meet separately with residents of Turners Station, who live closest to the proposed site.
"We're the ones who are going to see tankers in front of our houses," said Dunbar Brooks, a neighborhood activist.
State Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he and other elected officials encouraged the company to have as many community meetings as it can.
"The natural tendency is to worry about what would happen in the event of an accident," said Stone. "You have a homeland security issue, too. ... It may well be that there's never a problem, but I think the community has to be satisfied."