Build the natural gas terminal, but not at Sparrows Point

August 20, 2008|By JAY HANCOCK

Maryland undoubtedly needs more and cheaper energy, but we're not going to do just anything to get it. We won't strip state forests for fireplace fodder. We won't reverse pollution controls on cars and power plants.

And we shouldn't let ships carrying liquefied natural gas sail into the mouth of the Patapsco River.

Importing small but potentially catastrophic industrial risks into highly populated areas may have been OK for the 20th-century economy. It doesn't work now.

With hundreds of miles of coastline to accommodate freighters bringing gas from the Caribbean, why choose one of the few spots where an accident or terrorist attack could do grave damage?

AES Corp. is seeking approval to build an LNG terminal on Sparrows Point, near the Severstal steel mill. Ships a sixth of a mile long would round Sparrows Point, take a right before the Key Bridge and discharge their cargo within a mile and change of people's homes in either direction.

The shipments would boost East Coast natural gas supplies and probably lower not just gas prices but electricity costs, too.

AES and other terminal supporters argue that the risks are so small as to be negligible.

In its frigid, liquid state, they correctly note, natural gas is anything but explosive. Project supporters have a cool video of a guy extinguishing a cigarette in a jar of liquid gas.

It is also true that the 1944 LNG accident that killed 128 in Cleveland resulted from virtually nonexistent safety standards.

Liquid methane leaked into a neighborhood there and ignited as it evaporated. Today's LNG terminals and ships are double-walled, and ditches outside the tanks contain potential leaks. Dozens of terminals worldwide have handled thousands of shipments without incident.

You bear greater risk getting into a car every day, terminal supporters correctly point out, than you would living near an LNG plant.

But the risk is not zero, as a huge body of literature makes clear.

Because LNG ships are more fragile than the tanks that store gas on land, some experts consider a terrorist attack against a ship to be the biggest danger. Government scenarios of how that might happen are classified, but imagine a skiff in Bear Creek and a couple of shoulder-launched antitank rockets.

The gas could ignite once shipboard tanks were broken and it began evaporating.

"The thermal radiation from the ignition of a vapor cloud can be very high within the ignited cloud and, therefore, particularly hazardous to people," says a 2004 report by the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories. "In congested or highly populated areas, an ignition source would be likely, as opposed to remote areas, in which an ignition source might be less likely."

The grim matter of risk assessment involves figuring how far away an ignited cloud could maim and kill.

Jerry Havens, professor of chemical engineering and a fire and explosion specialist at the University of Arkansas, fears that "cascading failures" on an LNG tanker - the breach of two or more onboard tanks - could extend the danger zone far beyond the one-mile radius that many researchers consider the limit.

Havens is the rare LNG-hazard pro who knows Baltimore and isn't paid by Big Energy. One of 19 experts consulted by the Government Accountability Office for its report on the dangers of ocean-going LNG tankers, Havens used to live in Bowie and has seen the Sparrows Point site.

Generally, he says, LNG terminals and shipping routes ought to stay at least three miles away from highly populated areas. Within three miles of the Sparrows Point site, thousands of people live and work.

Havens won't come out and say the terminal is a bad idea. But, he adds, "There's nothing I would expect to learn about the specifics of the Sparrows Point project that would change those conclusions" about staying three miles away.

This column was going to favor the project. That was before I visited Sparrows Point, read the studies and talked to people on both sides of the argument. The fact that the site abuts blue-collar white and minority neighborhoods surely has something to do with why the enterprise has gotten this far.

"If it was Hunt Valley, Greenspring Valley, Rehoboth Beach, we would not be having this conversation," notes Linwood N. Jackson, who lives in Turners Station, directly across the water.

Maryland politicians are almost uniformly against the project. Environmentalists oppose it, too. Labor is for it, and many assume that federal regulators will eventually trump local concerns and approve it.

Sure, it's a small risk, but why take any? To add a few million in annual tax revenue? To save the money it would take to build an LNG terminal safely offshore in the Atlantic? To create a few hundred jobs?

Some chances you take because you have to. Others you take because benefits outweigh costs. Here we can eliminate risk and still reap benefits - by putting the terminal somewhere else.

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