Judge rules out zoning to block LNG terminal

Project foes pin hope on Critical Area amendment

January 24, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

A federal judge yesterday struck down a Baltimore County zoning law that was designed to block a liquefied natural gas terminal from being built on Sparrows Point.

The ruling is a blow to county officials and civic leaders who have been fighting a plan by a global power supply company to build a LNG terminal at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard on Sparrows Point. But the County Council has introduced new legislation that officials hope will have the same effect -- preventing the terminal from being built.

Last week, as an amendment to the county's zoning rules for a Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, the Baltimore County Council introduced legislation that would prohibit LNG facilities from being built in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. The measure is to be discussed at a Jan. 30 work session and voted on during the Feb. 5 council meeting.

The council had passed a zoning ordinance in June prohibiting LNG facilities from being built within five miles of a home, in the wake of the plan by AES Corp. to build a LNG terminal on Sparrows Point, less than two miles from the historically black neighborhood of Turners Station. AES filed its lawsuit against the county in September, challenging the legality of the June zoning law.

Saying that Congress has given the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission exclusive authority to determine the location of LNG plants, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ruled that the county may not enforce its June zoning law.

"A local government may not exercise veto power over this nationwide process by local zoning legislation," Bennett wrote in his opinion, ruling that the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 trumped the county's law.

AES project manager Kent Morton issued a written statement in response to yesterday's ruling, pointing out the economic benefits of the project.

Baltimore County officials say they are more optimistic about the legal footing of the LNG bill introduced last week.

"We believe that [proposed] legislation that will prohibit an LNG plant in a Critical Bay Area will be very effective in stopping the construction of this plant," Donald I. Mohler III, a county spokesman, said yesterday.

If adopted by the council, the state commission in charge of Maryland's Coastal Zone Management program would review the proposed zoning change for the county's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, county officials have said.

If the state determines that the natural gas project would not be consistent with the state and federal Coastal Zone Management programs, FERC would have to consider that finding, according to county officials.

Ultimately, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce may have to decide whether the public's interest is served best by a LNG facility or by preserving the coastal area, county officials have said.

Concerns about a LNG facility's potential environmental impact are among the issues raised by neighborhood activists and elected officials who object to the project. The AES plan calls for dredging the Patapsco River, which some residents and officials say will stir up toxic muck that will harm the river, nearby creek and the bay.

A group of residents filed a request in Baltimore County Circuit Court in December asking that the owners of the shipyard be ordered to stop a smaller dredging project that began last month.

Baltimore County Judge Susan Souder denied a motion Friday by lawyers for the owners of the shipyard, SPS Limited Partnership, to dismiss the community's request. However, because the company's permits require the dredging to be complete by the end of this month, a lawyer for the residents said it is unlikely that a judge can intercede in time to stop the dredging work.

"Unfortunately, the timing of the legal process has impaired our legal ability to stop phase one of the dredging," said Alan H. Silverberg, who represents several members of the Greater Dundalk Alliance's LNG Opposition Team. "But we're very focussed on any subsequent dredging."

AES filed its formal application this month with FERC to build the LNG facility on Sparrows Point and construct an 87-mile pipeline to southern Pennsylvania, where the gas would be distributed along the East Coast.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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