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Study raises safety concerns about Cove Point gas facility

A proposed liquefied natural gas facility in Calvert County could put nearby residents at "significant risk" if a fire or explosion occurs, according to a British consulting firm hired by opponents of the project to review its hazards.

Ricardo-AEA, commissioned by some nearby residents and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, concluded that plans to convert the Cove Point import terminal for liquefied natural gas into one processing and exporting large quantities of the volatile fuel pose additional, possibly "intolerable" risks for workers at the site and people living within eight-tenths of a mile of it.

"My view is that the project shouldn't be allowed to go forward, unless the applicant can demonstrate that the risks are not 'intolerable,' and that the risks have been reduced to a level which is as low as reasonably practicable," said Mark Broomfield, author of the report. He called for a detailed study of the risks and a review of what safeguards are planned or in place.

Dominion, the Richmond, Va.-based energy firm seeking federal approval to build the $3.8 billion facility, dismissed the report through a spokesman as "fundamentally flawed." Karl R. Neddenien, the company spokesman, said Ricardo lacked experience in siting facilities in the United States under federal regulations and relied on outdated and limited information about the project.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must decide whether to permit the project, said in May that with measures it suggested, there would be enough safeguards to "mitigate" the potential for an incident that could harm people outside the 130-acre compound. Commission staff concluded in its environmental assessment of the project that any impacts would be temporary and minor. The commission has yet to make a final determination.

Opponents contend the federal review glossed over safety concerns and have appealed to Gov. Martin O'Malley to have the state perform its own study. They point out that the state conducted such a study in 2006 when Dominion planned a more modest update of its LNG import facilities at Cove Point. O'Malley also submitted a state safety study several years ago in opposition to a proposed LNG import terminal at Sparrows Point in Baltimore, they note.

Nina Smith, O'Malley's press secretary, said the governor's office has received the residents' request and is considering it.

Opponents of the Cove Point project plan to rally against it Sunday on the National Mall in Washington. Neddenien said organizers of the protest are "misrepresenting facts" and ignoring the export facility's potential benefits.

Dominion plans to pipe natural gas to its terminal at Cove Point, superchill it to convert it from gas to liquid, then load it onto tankers to ship to customers in Asia. The company projects exporting up to 5.75 million metric tons of LNG annually from the Chesapeake Bay terminal, which has seen only limited import activity in nearly 40 years since it was built.

The project has the support of local elected officials, as well as national manufacturing and building trade unions. The company projects pumping $40 million in taxes into Calvert County while supporting more than 1,000 construction jobs and 93 permanent positions.

But nearby residents have called for a detailed study of risks, including "worst-case scenarios," after recent explosions and evacuations at gas facilities in Washington and Wyoming.

"The fact nobody wants to do it is scary," said Mark Wentling, 52, who said he lives three-fourths of a mile from Dominion's property.

Wentling said he wanted to sell his home because of concerns about safety and possible noise and vibration from the more intensive operations planned at the facility. But he said he gave up after a pair of real estate agents informed him the value of his property had declined below what he paid for it.

Broomfield said he has been doing environmental risk assessments since the 1990s, including some for chemical plants, and his consulting firm manages the British government's chemical emergency response center.

He acknowledged that his assessment of Cove Point was handicapped by limited information, but key pieces were redacted from the public record. The documents he could see indicate to him that the risks are "excessive," the consultant said. While Dominion may have been able to convince regulators it would take adequate safety precautions to offset those hazards, the consultant said, many of the specifics are not publicly available.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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