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Company agrees to study ammonia alternatives


In a move seen as hopeful to neighbors, Constellation Power Source Generation officials have agreed to look into installing an emissions reduction system at the Brandon Shores power plant that will not use anhydrous ammonia, a potentially hazardous chemical that would be trucked through the Solley area daily.

During a closed mediation session Monday night with Solley-area residents, the Constellation officials said they would give the residents a definite answer at a meeting Oct. 5 on whether the company will use anhydrous ammonia to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, said Bonnie Johansen, a senior environmental scientist with Constellation. The company will present facts and safety concerns about alternatives to anhydrous ammonia and a possible timeline for installing those systems, she said.

At the meeting, the two sides evaluated the three types of emissions reduction substances -- anhydrous ammonia, aqueous ammonia and a urea-based system that produces ammonia at the plant -- and concluded that anhydrous ammonia, a gas, poses the highest risk. It can cause severe lung damage and death in extreme exposure. They agreed that aqueous ammonia, a liquid, creates a significantly lower risk, while the urea system, consisting of pellets, has the lowest risk.

"I'm glad to see that [Constellation officials] seem to be hearing us, and we were listening carefully to what they said," said Lester A. Ettlinger, who has organized much of the community protest against the use of anhydrous ammonia.

Johansen said officials at Constellation, which took over operation of the plant in a restructuring of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., will look into the possibility of installing the aqueous system by the May 1 deadline set by the Maryland Department of the Environment for reducing emissions.

"We've been under construction for anhydrous at this point," she said. "We're looking to see if we can switch [to aqueous ammonia] and how long can that switch will take."

Johansen said the company cannot install the urea system by the Department of the Environment deadline because the substance has not been determined to be a proven and reliable system to reduce emissions. She said the first trial of the system went into effect in July at a Massachusetts plant.

The company had agreed to install the urea system by 2004, but it is studying whether the system can be installed sooner, Johansen said. The urea pellets make ammonia on demand as it's needed, and no transporting of ammonia is involved, she said. "You have to make sure that the urea can convert and make ammonia in the quantity and volume you need to make your plant run," she said.

Ettlinger said he thinks the community would be pleased if Constellation officials decide to implement the aqueous ammonia system -- if it has a low safety risk -- as an interim system before installing the urea system. Since June, the residents have been protesting the company's decision to use anhydrous ammonia because they are concerned that transporting about 7,000 gallons of a pressurized form of the gas into the complex would put residents' health and safety at risk.

"My feeling is that the potential for an off-site disaster [with aqueous ammonia] is going to be much reduced, not zero, but much less than the anhydrous system," Ettlinger said. "That's what we're after. We're not trying to stop them. We just want them to be sensible."

Anhydrous ammonia and aqueous ammonia were the only two substances the company had to choose from to comply with the MDE's mandate, Johansen said. The company officials selected anhydrous ammonia because it required fewer trucks -- one truck a day, compared with the five or six needed for aqueous ammonia -- and they felt it posed less risk, she said.

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat, said she felt it was a positive step to use mediators to reach a consensus because they helped tone down the emotions felt by both sides.

"I know that BGE will make the right decision," she said.

Both sides agreed that working through mediators has been a productive process.

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