LNG company contests law preventing project

AES fights county action against planned gas facility

October 05, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt and Tyrone Richardson | Laura Barnhardt and Tyrone Richardson,sun reporters

The global power supply company that wants to build a liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point is challenging the legality of a Baltimore County zoning law that would block the project.

The company, AES Sparrows Point LNG, filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to strike down the county's LNG zoning law.

In their request for an injunction, lawyers for AES wrote that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the sole authority to determine whether an LNG facility is constructed and asked the federal court to declare the county's zoning law to be "preempted by federal law and to be of no legal effect."

AES proposed late last year to construct a $400 million terminal at the former Sparrows Point shipyard, where shipments of liquefied natural gas would arrive via tankers from overseas. The liquid fuel would be transformed into gas at the facility and then pumped through a 87-mile pipeline to southern Pennsylvania for distribution along the East Coast.

Residents and elected officials have strongly opposed the LNG terminal, which would be less than 2 miles from the nearest houses in Dundalk. Critics of the project, which would require dredging the Patapsco River, say it would jeopardize the community's safety and thwart efforts to transform eastern Baltimore County from an industry-heavy area into a destination for technology companies, entertainment venues and tourists.

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 22 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Donald I. Mohler III, a spokesman for the county, said yesterday that Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. plans a "vigorous defense" against the lawsuit and that the executive has directed the county's law office to prepare a legal strategy within the next several days.

"The county executive, as he has said from the beginning, will do whatever it takes to prevent the operation of a LNG plant in Sparrows Point," Mohler said.

A spokesman for the company provided a written statement yesterday, saying AES expected to file its formal application with federal regulators in December. The statement also said that "contrary to many of the claims made in public meetings and correspondence, our studies indicate that the off-shore dredging we have proposed will not harm the health of the Chesapeake Bay in either the long or short term. In effect, AES is proposing to clean up an existing environmental condition -- one that we did not cause -- without the need for government funding."

The zoning ordinance at issue, enacted in June by the County Council, prohibits an LNG facility from being located within 5 miles of a residential zone, which would mean that AES couldn't build its facility at Sparrows Point. But the law hasn't been applied, because AES has yet to seek approval for the project from the county.

County Council members said when they passed the measure that they would not be surprised if AES filed a lawsuit but added that they felt they had to act to prevent the construction of the LNG terminal at Sparrows Point.

A similar proposal to ban LNG facilities from being located near homes failed to pass in the state legislature this year.

Bart S. Fisher, a lawyer for Dundalk residents opposed to the project, said he believed AES' lawsuit was an attempt to "intimidate" state elected officials from trying again to pass the measure. He also called the lawsuit "flawed, premature and without merit."

A task force created by state lawmakers to study the risks and benefits associated with the LNG facility met for a second time yesterday and outlined topics it intends to study, such as possible evacuation routes in the event of an accident at the Sparrows Point site.

The 14-member task force, headed by Sharon Beazley, a Dundalk activist opposed to the LNG facility, and Joel Baker, a University of Maryland environmental chemist, also discussed the potential impact of a facility.

The panel's findings are due by the end of the year.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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