Court to hear LNG dispute today

Company hopes to overturn Balto. Co. law to stop gas facility

November 26, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

A company seeking to build a liquefied natural gas facility on Sparrows Point is scheduled to be in court today to try to overturn a law designed to stop the project.

AES Corp., a global power-supply company, says Baltimore County has repeatedly tried to interfere with the federal approval process for energy projects.

Baltimore County officials say they are allowed to prohibit certain uses, such as LNG terminals, along the waterfront as part of the state and federally sanctioned Coastal Zone Management Act.

The dueling motions filed in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court by the AES and county attorneys over the legality of the county's amendment to its Critical Areas Plan are part of the legal wrangling involved in the two-year-and-counting fight over the project.

A motions hearing is scheduled for this afternoon before Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul F. Harris Jr.

The AES has also appealed a federal judge's decision to uphold the county's prohibition on LNG facilities in coastal areas. The company is seeking to have the Department of Commerce overrule a finding by Maryland that the proposed Sparrows Point facility isn't consistent with the coastal zone management program.

Eastern Baltimore County neighborhood activists and elected officials, including Maryland's Congress members, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., are opposed to the LNG project.

They say they're concerned about possible accidents and terrorist attacks at the facility, which they say is too close to homes. And they say the dredging of the Patapsco River required to accommodate the LNG tankers would stir up toxic muck that could harm fish and crabs.

The AES was dealt a setback last month when the State Highway Administration said that company wouldn't likely be allowed to build a pipeline from its proposed LNG plant to southern Pennsylvania along sections of the Baltimore Beltway.

Forced to redraw a route for the pipeline and do more tests, the company's project has been delayed.

Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides where LNG plants can locate. The commission consults with the Coast Guard and other state and federal agencies. But the companies that want to build the facilities must also obtain Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Coastal Zone Management Act permits.

Industry experts and officials say preventing the company from getting a Coastal Zone Management Act permit could be the best chance that Baltimore County has to block the LNG project.

"It's a very long, involved process," said William Cooper, executive director of the Washington-based Center for LNG, an industry group.

But, Cooper said, not having Coastal Zone Management Act approval "would kill the deal."

Kent Morton, the manager for the AES Sparrows Point project, says locating an LNG terminal in the industrial area of Sparrows Point is an "environmentally friendly solution to much of Maryland's energy needs."

"AES has consistently kept environmental concerns at the forefront of its proposed Sparrows Point LNG facility as reflected in our detailed proposal - from the choice of LNG/natural gas as a highly-efficient and clean-burning fuel to facility placement and our willingness to clean the Bay and the facility site to a considerably greater degree than has existed there for decades," Morton wrote in a statement.

But Baltimore County officials call the company's claims "specious."

"Our obligation under the critical areas law is to look at the long-term uses and impacts if any part of a facility in the area fails - five years from now or 30 years from now," said David A.C. Carroll, head of the county's Environmental Protection and Resource Management Department.

A company wanting to build a landfill along the waterfront could, like AES, argue that modern technology is so good that the facility wouldn't damage the sensitive environment, Carroll said. But landfills are also among the prohibited uses in the coastal areas, because if something did go wrong, the impacts would be catastrophic, he said.

County officials put LNG terminals in the same category as landfills this year when the county council passed an amendment adding LNG terminals to a list of facilities that are not allowed in a Chesapeake Bay Critical Area.

In June, the Maryland Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays - of which Carroll is a member - adopted Baltimore County's amendment. And in July, AES filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court against Baltimore County government and the state environmental panel, contending its approval was improper.

The program amendment is another "attempt by the county to ban LNG import terminals," lawyers for AES wrote in court filings.

Lawyers for Baltimore County have asked that the lawsuit - the third filed against it by AES - be dismissed, and if not, then transferred to Baltimore County Circuit Court.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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