Cove Point project opponents raise safety concerns

Expansion would allow exporting of liquefied natural gas

  • Hundreds of seagulls are full time residents on the north offshore pier at the Dominion Cove Point terminal, which is a liquid natural gas (LNG) importing facility.
Hundreds of seagulls are full time residents on the north offshore… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
January 26, 2014|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

The way energy company Dominion sees it, exporting liquefied natural gas from its Southern Maryland complex wouldn't be that big of a shift from the importing it does now. Same pipes, same storage tanks, same terminal.

But the project at Cove Point strikes opponents as a sea change. Now those fighting the proposal on environmental grounds are joining forces with some Calvert County residents worried about hazards from the liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which on rare occasions has caused deadly fires or explosions.

Dominion wants to convert natural gas to its chilled liquid form at the expanded facility — which will cost as much as $3.8 billion — before it's exported in a process the company said is safe.

"We have public safety in mind, but there's nobody more interested in protecting us than us," said Michael D. Frederick, vice president of LNG operations at Cove Point, noting that his office is a few hundred feet from the planned expansion, and his home is a few minutes away by car.

But the plans make Lusby residents Dale and Sue Allison anxious.

"We live very close to it," said Dale Allison, a retired Navy engineer who moved to the area in 1997, during a less active period in Cove Point's history. "We can see the tanks out of our kitchen window."

Unlike the LNG import terminal proposed years ago for Sparrows Point, which drew political ire, Cove Point has high-powered support. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat who represents the area and is the House minority whip, likes the idea. So do Calvert County's commissioners, who welcome the project as an economic boon and who approved a tax break for the expansion.

The opposition includes Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur, who argues that Maryland can't afford the big uptick in greenhouse gases the power-intensive operation would produce locally. A Calvert County Circuit Court judge turned aside a Sierra Club effort to block Dominion's plans.

Cove Point is among approximately two dozen LNG export facilities proposed across the country, all driven by a massive change in the country's energy fortunes.

Cheaper, more abundant natural gas that has come with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has made importing much less necessary — and exporting look like a good business bet. U.S. natural gas prices have been running about $3.50 to $4 per million British thermal units, compared with around $16 in Japan, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The agency forecasts that the United States will become a net exporter of LNG in 2016. It also predicted that exporting would increase prices for domestic consumers.

Dominion and other firms seeking to reassure terminal neighbors about safety say the likelihood of an incident at an LNG facility is extremely low, and the odds that such a problem would spread off the site are even lower.

But the few accidents that have occurred fuel community fears of explosions and vapor clouds of leaked LNG.

The only LNG incident at a U.S. facility that resulted in deaths off site happened in 1944, when a fire caused by a storage tank failure in Cleveland killed 128 people and injured at least 200 more, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The tank wasn't suited for very low temperatures, the FERC said, a problem fixed in modern facilities.

Cove Point opponents point to a more recent explosion at an Algerian liquefaction facility, which killed 27 workers in 2004. Opponents also note that a natural gas processing plant in West Virginia — a different type of facility, but newly opened by Dominion in a joint venture — suffered an explosion and fire in September.

"They were … telling the community this was going to be a world-class, highly reliable facility, and then two months after they turned it on, it blew up," said Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which opposes the project for environmental and safety reasons.

The blast shook houses but caused no injures. Dominion said the damage was limited to a small area on the site.

Chet G. Wade, a Dominion spokesman, said that demonstrates that in the "very, very, very rare incidence there's an incident," the company's safety measures keep problems contained.

But what sparked the accident has yet to be explained.

"The official report hasn't been finished," Wade said.

The Algerian blast was caused by a leak that allowed gas to flow into the boilers through an air intake.

That won't happen again, Frederick said.

"One of the things that changed worldwide after that was gas detection at all air intakes of fuel-burning equipment," he said. "If there were a cloud, the gas detection would sense that and shut it down."

Frederick said Cove Point has duplicates of each safety system, just in case.

"If all that failed — I'm telling you it won't — but if all that failed, an issue would be contained on the site," he said.

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