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Evacuation route eyed for Cove Point gas plant

The energy company Dominion said Tuesday that it is exploring developing an alternate evacuation route for some residential neighbors of its proposed Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant, prompting opponents to question anew assertions by the company and federal regulators that the facility poses no significant safety or environmental risks.

Karl R. Neddenien, spokesman for the Richmond, Va.-based company, declined to offer details but said Dominion is "looking into" establishing an alternate route for residents living on Cove Point to get away should there be an emergency at the facility. The only road the community can use now to evacuate goes past the LNG terminal gate.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the $3.8 billion project Monday, and Dominion notified the commission Tuesday that it accepts 79 environmental conditions set by federal regulators. A new evacuation route was not required, however, as regulators relied on an assurance by Calvert County's public safety department that the existing Cove Point Road is "adequate."

The company spokesman acknowledged, though, that there have been questions raised at the many public meetings held on the controversial project about the safety of residents living nearby should there be a major explosion or fire there.

"We are still voluntarily looking at the emergency plan [for the facility] and are working with local and state emergency agencies to make sure that our plan is among the best," Neddenien said. "We suspect there might be some actions taken."

In accepting the commission's conditions on moving forward, Dominion Energy President Diane Leopold called the federal review "exhaustive" in a statement. She said the company looks forward to starting construction "in the very near future," adding that the work would be done "with the public's safety first and foremost in our mind."

Converting the little-used LNG import terminal to liquefy natural gas and load it onto tankers for export to Asia would support thousands of construction jobs, the company says. Once built, the plant would create 75 permanent jobs and generate $40 million in annual tax revenue for the county, according to Dominion.

Opponents said the company's exploration of a second evacuation route confirms their belief that federal regulators failed to conduct a thorough review of the project's safety and environmental impacts, including release of hazardous air pollution and emissions of climate-altering methane gas.

Tracey Eno, spokesman for Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community, said that "there's an admission on someone's part, whether Dominion or the government or both, that there's a need for people to be able to get the hell out." But if a disaster ever occurred at the plant, she added, an alternate evacuation route would be of little use for those living directly across the road from it.

Eno's group and several environmental organizations said Tuesday they planned to petition the federal commission to reconsider its decision not to do a more thorough review of the project.

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