County seen as unable to handle an LNG crisis

Emergency official testifies to panel studying plan

October 19, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore County lacks enough emergency responders and the proper equipment to handle an accident at a proposed liquefied natural gas plant on Sparrows Point, the county's homeland security chief told a group studying the project yesterday.

"We'd be taxed to say the least," said Richard G. Muth, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. "We're one of, if not the largest fire department in the state, and I can tell you we couldn't handle this -- not on our own. ... We're taxed every day with the everyday."

County firefighting vehicles don't carry the type of foam needed to douse burning LNG, which can't be extinguished with water, Muth said. And evacuating the eastern portion of the county would be extremely difficult because there are few exit routes and no reliable way to notify residents, he said.

Muth also expressed concern about the lack of data on LNG spills, as all of the major studies relied on models to calculate likely emergency scenarios.

The director's comments came during the third meeting of the state's LNG task force, a panel of residents and state officials assigned to report to the governor and state legislators about the effects of the proposed LNG facility on Sparrows Point.

The task force was created in the wake of a plan by AES Corp., a global power supplier, which wants to build the LNG terminal at the former Sparrows Point shipyard to receive shipments of the superchilled fuel via tankers from abroad. At the terminal, the LNG would be returned to a gas.

Company plans call for construction of an 87-mile pipeline from Sparrows Point through Harford County to southern Pennsylvania, where the gas would be distributed to points along the East Coast.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will decide whether to approve AES' plan once the company files its formal application, expected this year.

The project has been vehemently criticized by state and local elected officials and by residents who fear that the terminal would pose a danger to nearby neighborhoods and thwart efforts to bring new residents and businesses into the area.

Responding to concerns by county emergency officials, AES spokesman Zack Germroth said, "I'd say it's an educational process for the applicant and AES, because there are needs from the county's side that AES needs to be aware of. There are also resources that AES can help the county identify."

The company recently filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission against Sharon Beazley, co-chairwoman of the LNG task force, arguing that she could not serve on the panel in an "objective and unbiased manner" because she also heads the Greater Dundalk Alliance's LNG Opposition team.

In a written statement, the company said it was expressing concern that "having such a strongly stated position of opposition to the proposed project" affected her ability to serve as co-chairwoman of the task force.

Beazley referred questions about the ethics complaint to Bart S. Fisher, the attorney for the LNG opposition team.

Fisher, who is working pro bono for the opposition team, called the Oct. 13 complaint "a blatant attempt to intimidate the task force."

The law that created the task force specifies the background of those on the panel, which has four members from the energy, environmental and scientific communities; six chosen by legislators in the area where the terminal is proposed; and representatives from the state's environment, natural resources, and energy departments.

"It's obvious those representatives will have a point of view," Fisher said. "It's not a conflict of interest to have a point of view."

The Washington attorney also noted that Beazley is a volunteer, not an employee of the opposition team, as the company had stated in its complaint. And Fisher said that Beazley, when selected as chairwoman of the task force by its members, asked to be co-chairwoman instead, as a way to balance the group's leadership.

Joel Baker, a University of Maryland environmental chemist, also is a co-chairman of the group.

The task force meets again Nov. 1 and Nov. 17. All meetings are open to the public. Meetings begin at 10 a.m. at the Maryland Department of the Environment offices in Montgomery Park, 1800 Washington Blvd. in Baltimore.

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