Communities, big projects mix like oil and water

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STANDING ON the roof of a 642-megawatt, coal-burning power plant is a great place to get a broad view of the world on a clear winter day.

Although the outdoor temperature was probably a brisk 40 degrees, the tremendous amount of heat generated by the 12-story furnace below made the air swirling around us on the rooftop feel like a balmy 80 degrees.

The view, incidentally, was spectacular. Directly below us, a large freighter, loaded with orange and green containers, made its way up the Chesapeake Bay.

Across the mouth of the Patapsco River, the forest of smokestacks at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrow Point plant spewed white plumes of water vapor. Looking up the Patapsco, we could see the chemical and petroleum storage tanks in Curtis Bay and Fairfield.

Not there for the view

I was not, however, on the roof of BGE's Brandon Shores power plant to enjoy the view.

BGE's efforts to bury the fly ash from its adjoining Brandon Shores and H. A. Wagner power plants has been a recurring story in Anne Arundel County. I had written about fly ash and toured the site where the utility buries it but had never been to the plant that generates the 1,000-plus tons of gray powder each day.

My hosts at BGE wanted to focus attention on the various new proposals to convert fly ash to useful products and the utility's efforts to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from its smokestacks. But gazing down on more than a half-billion dollars' worth of generating plants, electrostatic precipitators, coal handling conveyors, piers, cooling towers and other structures, my main thought was whether such a plant could be built today.

Could it be built today?

Communities have become downright hostile to large-scale projects.

Peering westward as planes descended at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, I pondered the short list of projects that have generated angry community opposition recently: an auto speedway in Pasadena, supermarkets in South County, a power plant in Cecil County, a synagogue in Baltimore County.

Something seems to have happened to us as a community. We want the benefits and conveniences of power plants, airports, shopping centers and factories, so long as they're far from our midst.

Imagine the uproar if BGE wanted to build Brandon Shores on its current site, or if the state decided to build BWI Airport at its current location.

Even though power plants and airports are essential to our economic well-being, opposition to these projects would probably be strident enough to drive them to another location, where they would likely run into equally strident hostility.

This current opposition is more than the proverbial "Not In My Backyard." It is more like BANANA -- "Build Absolutely Nothing At All Near Anyone."

We have lost a civic consensus that each community has to tolerate some activities that are integral to our lives. With proper planning, these less desirable activities can be accommodated.

I don't advocate power plants or factories in the middle of residential communities. But it seems that even communities with industrial zoning find it difficult to locate plants on those parcels.

Out of Perryville

In northeast Maryland recently, Perryville residents were aghast that Providentpower would pursue building a 50-megawatt power plant to replace a plastics plant that was abandoned 17 years ago. Though the plant was proposed for 133 acres on the outskirts of town, residents feared its operations would interfere with the quality of their lives. Faced with determined opposition, the company abandoned plans last month and is now considering building on the Eastern Shore.

Gazing down from several hundred feet above the ground, I wondered what would have happened had Providentpower proposed its plant on some of the vacant industrial land around Brandon Shores.

My guess is that residents would have opposed it as vehemently as the speedway, arguing that they are tired of their neighborhood being the dumping ground for these uses.

The question confronting many projects these days looms larger even than the power plant I stood atop: If not here, where?

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 3/07/99

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