Judges at hearing on LNG terminal have many queries

January 31, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

RICHMOND, VA. -- When lawyers for Baltimore County and an energy company that wants to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on Sparrows Point presented their cases yesterday to a three-judge federal appeals court panel, they both made reference to eight people sitting in the courtroom.

"They're some of the living, breathing human beings this affects," said County Attorney John E. Beverungen, gesturing to a group of Dundalk-area residents who are opposed to the plant and traveled to Richmond, some leaving at 4:30 a.m., to hear the arguments before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jeffrey A. Lamken, a lawyer for AES Corp., said the federal approval process weighs local concerns against the need for a supply of clean energy so that, for example, families in western Pennsylvania don't have to go without heat.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission balances concerns about health and safety so "we don't get victimized by NIMBY" -- not in my backyard -- he said.

The case is being closely watched by the energy industry and local governments to see whether a revised coastal zone management plan can be used to prevent LNG facilities from being built in waterfront areas.

Ever since AES announced the project two years ago, elected officials have been looking for ways to stop it. Legislation proposed by members of Congress and state lawmakers weren't passed. One county zoning law banning LNG terminals near homes was thrown out by a federal judge. Opponents think the Coastal Zone Management Act offers the county the best protection against the project.

AES Corp., an international power supply company based in Arlington, Va., is appealing the June decision of U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who upheld the county's LNG prohibition.

The company says the county overstepped its authority and is attempting to circumvent the federal approval process for energy projects.

County attorneys argue that the federal Coastal Zone Management Act delegates authority to local governments to determine what land uses should be forbidden to protect the environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

The panel, composed of appeals court Judges Karen J. Williams and Dennis W. Shedd, and Liam O'Grady, a federal district judge from eastern Virginia, questioned the lawyers extensively. Oral arguments are usually limited to 20 minutes for each side, but, with the questions, yesterday's session lasted more than an hour.

The judges asked why they needed to weigh in on the issue when the company is appealing to the U.S. Department of Commerce over another finding. In that case, the Maryland Department of the Environment said the LNG proposal for Sparrows Point was not consistent with the state's coastal zone management plan.

"We don't want to have go through the entire federal process, then to face another impediment" to Baltimore County's LNG prohibition, Lamken said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the proposal by AES to build an LNG terminal at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard for tankers carrying the imported, super-chilled liquefied natural gas, and to construct an 87-mile pipeline to southern Pennsylvania to distribute the gas.

Dundalk community leaders said few people were able to travel to Richmond for yesterday's hearing but that thousands of residents in the Baltimore region are concerned about the LNG proposal. Elected officials in the county and state have also criticized the project.

Sharon Beazley, one of the Dundalk community activists fighting the LNG plan, was in court yesterday. "We need to understand the process," she said. "We've been educating ourselves every step of the way."

Kent Morton, an AES project manager who also was in court, said that contrary to the county's arguments that the LNG facility would ruin an environmentally fragile area, the company would be "improving" the industrial zone. "It's a good project for Maryland," he said.

It could be several months before the appeals court panel issues its opinion in the case, lawyers for both sides said.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com.

Key Developments

Late 2005: AES Corp. begins meeting with community groups and local officials to introduce project to build a liquefied natural gas terminal at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Sparrows Point.

June 2006: Baltimore County Council passes zoning law banning LNG facilities from being located within 5 miles of a residential zone, which would mean that AES couldn't build in Sparrows Point.

January 2007: AES files formal application to build the LNG terminal at Sparrows Point and construct a pipeline with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; U.S. District Court judge strikes down county's June zoning law.

February 2007: Baltimore County Council passes law prohibiting LNG plants in environmentally sensitive coastal areas. AES files another lawsuit against Baltimore County in federal court, saying the legislation is unconstitutional.

June 2007: A federal district judge upholds county law prohibiting LNG plants from being built in coastal areas; U.S. Senate votes 56-37 to reject a measure from Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski that would have restored to states the authority to block new LNG terminals.

November 2007: Anne Arundel County judge transfers a lawsuit by AES against Maryland Critical Areas Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays to Baltimore County Circuit Court. AES appeals to Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

January 2008: 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond hears arguments on legality of county law prohibiting LNG plants in environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

Source: Sun archives

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