Lines drawn on gas plant

Planned facility raises safety fears

June 04, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

The 72-year-old retired school teacher lives just over a mile from the spot at the old Sparrows Point shipyard where a global power-supply company wants to process liquefied natural gas. And she has heard enough about the idea - which has politicians lining up against it - that she's worried her great-grandchildren might not be safe playing outside her home.

"If it happens, you'd be anxious about everything," says Martha Winston, whose modest two-story house is in the heart of historic Turners Station, just across Bear Creek from the proposed LNG terminal. "We feel most intimidated because we're so close to it."

The power supply company says that the plant would be safe, that it is far enough from homeowners to all but assure their safety even if there were a spill. Opponents say the project, which would involve moving tankers filled with concentrated fuel and as long as three football fields past areas where large numbers of people live, is an invitation to disaster - and terrorists.

The proposal for a plant on Sparrows Point will be the subject of federal hearings this week, at which residents plan to air their fears about safety issues that, after more than a dozen studies, are still in dispute among scientists.

"These studies don't tell me I'm safe," said Dunbar Brooks, vice president of the state school board and a community leader in the Turners Station area of Dundalk. "They tell me: `Be afraid.'"

Judging by the most apocalyptic of the reports, written more than two decades ago for the civil defense arm of the Pentagon, an accident at a plant on Sparrows Point could create a low-lying, flammable fog over an area large enough to cover the Inner Harbor. Based on another report, LNG spilled from a ship at the proposed site could ignite and create a radius of deadly heat large enough to reach to Turners Station.

But another analysis, conducted by a large laboratory for the Department of Energy, says the danger zone would be less than a mile from the LNG tankers and terminal, and any leak or explosion would likely pose no real risk to Maryland residents or their property.

To some, LNG tankers are comparable to floating nuclear bombs. Why else, some in Dundalk ask, would armed patrols escort the tankers through Boston Harbor? Why else, they want to know, would the Coast Guard keep boats away from ships unloading at the Cove Point LNG facility in Calvert County? Why would there even be talk of shutting down the Bay Bridge as the LNG tankers pass below?

Former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke called LNG terminals and tankers prime targets for a terrorist attack. Clarke - who later worked for AES Corp., the company that wants to build a facility on Sparrows Point - said in a 2005 report that an attack near the site of a proposed, though ultimately rejected, Rhode Island facility could have killed 3,000.

But the study that many consider the most extensive look at the issue found little chance that anyone more than a mile away from an LNG spill would be hurt. AES officials say the nearest home to the plant site is 1.3 miles away.

Some, including officials with AES, say the vessels pose no more risk than a lot of other cargo ships coming into Baltimore's harbor virtually every day.

For this article, The Sun reviewed more than a dozen reports, with more than 800 pages of analysis and models of possible LNG spills, and interviewed the lead researchers who wrote five of the scientific studies.

Each study is based upon its own assumptions, scenarios, models and calculations. And all of them have been criticized.

Many of their authors say the results can't necessarily be applied to all locations. They, and others who have followed the issue, also point out that their models are limited by the lack of large-scale LNG spill experiments.

"We've tested a nuclear bomb," said Tim Riley, a California attorney who with his wife produced a film, The Risks and Danger of LNG, based in part on a study that offers the direst predictions. Riley, whose film has been viewed by elected officials and more than a dozen community groups in the Baltimore area, argues that no more LNG projects should be approved until the facilities can be proved safe.

"Until a large-spill test of LNG is done," he says, "we're just shooting in the dark."

Officials at AES Corp. say the most recent studies back their contention that the facility and the tankers carrying the fuel would be safe. They say opposition comes with any proposal for a project of considerable scale.

"Whether you're talking about a wind farm, a pipeline, a coal plant or an LNG terminal, nobody says, `Thank God, you're putting it here,'" said Aaron Samson, director of LNG projects for AES. "Wherever you pick, whatever technology you use, big infrastructure projects aren't popular."

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