Once again, residents in northern Anne Arundel County are gearing up to fight the big power company next door.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s plans to truck a common but hazardous chemical down a road where traffic accidents are frequent has raised community outrage - though the anhydrous ammonia is destined for a new pollution-control system at the coal-fueled Brandon Shores plant.
Community leaders have collected nearly 1,000 signatures against the plan since a neighborhood meeting Tuesday, when most residents learned about BGE's 1998 decision to truck about 7,000 gallons of a pressurized form of the gas into the complex daily as part of a new emission-reduction system.
Pickets and demonstrations are in the works, said Lester A. Ettlinger, a Stoney Beach resident and one of the neighborhood representatives who attended a meeting in late June where BGE officials introduced their plans.
"Some people have told me that if BGE doesn't behave themselves, they'll have kids marching in gas masks," said Ettlinger, who is an environmental risk consultant and a former Johns Hopkins University professor.
Though the company says the planned anhydrous ammonia transportation and the on-site system will be safe, residents are worried about the consequences of any leak.
The worst-case scenario would be if one of the plant's two 15,300-gallon tanks emptied of anhydrous ammonia within 10 minutes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. BGE estimates the gas could travel 2.3 miles, threatening the estimated 12,000 people who live within that radius. BGE has no evacuation plan, which neighbors say could lead to disaster.
Brief exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause lung damage, skin destruction, and, at concentrations of 2,500 to 6,500 parts per million, possibly death, according to statistics from the EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Iowa State University.
But BGE officials say that's not going to happen.
This "worst-case scenario," as defined by the EPA, has never occurred in the history of anhydrous ammonia use, said Ed F. Tracey, BGE's environmental supervisor.
The hazards of trucking anhydrous ammonia into Brandon Shores are minimal, he said. The substance is one of the most common industrial chemicals, the power plant has hired an experienced certified company to make the once-a-day shipments and BGE has instituted more than the required safety standards.
"When we made the decision to design and build this anhydrous ammonia system, we also made the commitment to ourselves that this would be designed, built and operated as the safest anhydrous ammonia system in Baltimore," said David W. Parks, BGE's director of environmental health and safety. "And that is what we're doing."
But none of that appeases residents, who have spent the last decade tangling with the power giant over health issues. The potential for an accident involving only one truck entering the plant at the intersection of Fort Smallwood Road and Energy Parkway - the site of a fatal crash in January involving a car and a bus - is troubling enough, they say.
"There are only two questions you need to ask yourself about anhydrous ammonia," said Marcia Drenzyk, another neighborhood activist. "Do you trust BGE? And are you feeling lucky?"
The community is encouraging BGE, which is under court order to reduce emissions by 90 percent, to explore using a new, safer technology, called Ammonia On Demand, or AOD, which eliminates the need to transport hazardous material.
"If there's another way to do the job that has no added risk, well, then it's a no-brainer," Ettlinger said.
He has researched alternatives, recently touring a Southern Energy Inc. power plant in Massachusetts where the alternative system is used.
BGE said its officials have been in touch with Environmental Elements Corp., a Baltimore-based company that constructs the AOD system. The power plant had sent a letter to neighborhood representatives this month explaining that this technology was not available when BGE made its decision on anti-pollution systems, adding that it could possibly switch to AOD by 2004.
BGE officials said they would monitor how the system worked in Massachusetts, then try it at their Wagner plant before considering using it at Brandon Shores.
"Realistically, we're looking at 15 months total of an anhydrous system in operation," Parks said. The anti-pollution system will be in operation May through September over the next three summers, reducing pollution during the worst ozone period of the year, he said.
BGE plans to start shipments in November. The system would be in operation beginning May 2001.
This means little to Ettlinger and the others. If the safer process is available, they say, why not try it, reducing risk to the surrounding community. Three years is a long time to worry about a potentially devastating accident, they say, and that assumes that BGE will switch systems.
"If they don't change and do it now, it won't get done in the future," said Joan Cadden, Democratic state delegate for District 31, which includes the Solley area. "I think they'll have too much money tied up in their other facilities to switch it over. They'll take the time to get their money's worth."
In the meantime, residents are preparing for this latest battle.
Ettlinger, who said he is new to community activism, has passed out hundreds of fliers around his area urging community organization. Drenzyk, who has experience with resident activism after successfully fighting the proposed development of a racetrack in Solley, was swarmed with people asking for petition forms, offering to sign up every neighbor.
At Tuesday's community meeting, attended by more than 100 people, residents urged resistance, demanding to know what they could do.
"This is the first step," Drenzyk said after the meeting, "to showing we've got a huge problem here."