Economic boon or potential disaster?


LUSBY - For two decades, the half-mile-long steel platform off Cove Point has been one of the Chesapeake Bay's hottest fishing spots, a magnet for rockfish and anglers alike.

But soon the pack of fishing boats may have to give way to huge tankers three football fields long and bearing a volatile cargo. With the nation said to be in the throes of an energy crisis, a Texas company wants to resume imports of liquefied natural gas through a long-dormant shipping terminal on the Calvert County shore.

Williams Gas Pipeline, based in Houston, has applied for federal approval to bring up to 90 tankers a year up the bay starting next spring to unload liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Ashore, the superchilled fuel would be warmed to air temperature, then pumped by underground pipeline along the East Coast to heat and light millions of homes and businesses.

If approved, the Cove Point facility - mothballed since the end of the last energy crisis in the late 1970s and purchased last June by Williams - would become the fourth and largest LNG terminal in North America. The company plans to spend $103 million to upgrade it and could hire up to 60 workers.

"It's a good fit to us, because it's very close to our market area," says James Shannon, director of field operations for Williams in Charlottesville, Va. The firm owns 27,300 miles of pipelines crisscrossing the country, and plans to import LNG from Trinidad and Venezuela to feed a surging demand for the fuel, which has more than doubled in price in two years.

The proposal is welcomed by Calvert County's commissioners, who say reopening the terminal would yield $2 million a year in needed tax revenue for the state's fastest-growing county. "I think we all agree that it's a good project, one that would help the county," says David F. Hale, president of the five-member commission.

But the prospect chills many residents living in splendid isolation in the shadow of the Cove Point Lighthouse and in burgeoning bayfront communities to the south. With water on three sides, the point's lone access road runs past the terminal and its four huge, white LNG storage tanks. Residents on dead-end, dirt side roads fear that an accident - or possibly a terrorist attack - could incinerate their bayview homes and maybe them, too.

"If it blows, if there is an accident, there's very little chance that we could get out, except perhaps by water," says Patricia G. Erickson, a writer in her 70s who has lived with her husband at Cove Point Beach for 20 years.

"I don't think we're very happy about it at all," says Peter D. Waters, 59, president of the 240-family Cove Point Beach Association. "There's a lot of risks involved," says Waters, an engineer who works on cruise missiles at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in neighboring St. Mary's County.

Fishermen and boaters also are upset, worrying that their livelihood and recreation will suffer if the government bans other vessels for miles around to protect the fuel-filled tankers.

"Keeping us off those trolling grounds, that can be devastating," says Ed O'Brien, vice president of the Maryland Charterboat Association, which represents charter fishing skippers, many of them docked at Solomons just south of Cove Point. "At certain times of the year, that is the [fishing] spot."

Williams officials note that the terminal operated without major disruption from 1978 to 1980, unloading 90 tankers before it shut down because of a pricing dispute with LNG suppliers in Algeria.

Columbia Gas, the terminal's original owner, reopened it in 1995 to help out in peak winter heating months. About 25 people now staff the facility, which takes gas pumped in by pipeline and chills it to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, then stores it in four insulated tanks able to hold a total of 5 billion cubic feet of gas in liquid form.

If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves reopening the terminal, Williams plans to build a fifth insulated tank that could hold another 2.5 billion cubic feet of LNG.

Company officials say the facility is, and will be, safe. Liquefied natural gas will not burn, though gas vapors mixed with air are highly flammable once the liquid begins "boiling" at minus-259 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company plans to overhaul the terminal's 1970s-era controls and safety systems, replacing manually operated switches and dials with a centralized, computer-operated command center. Remote sensors to be installed in all buildings will be sensitive enough to "see" a match-size flame from 100 feet away, says Michael E. Gardner, the facility's manager. An automatic fire-suppression system is in place to quench fires before they have a chance to grow.

Safety is the main concern of people living near the terminal. The number of homes within two miles has practically doubled since the last tanker called more than 20 years ago, growing from 3,200 housing units to 6,200 housing units, according to county figures.

"To me, it's a risk because of the growing population there, and the nuclear power plant so damn close," says Elroy R. McLeod, a Huntington resident who works for a NASA satellite contractor.

Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant hugs the shore about three miles north of the LNG terminal. Hazard studies in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s concluded that there was little risk to the power plant from an accident at Cove Point.

Residents remain doubtful, spinning scenarios under which a storage tank could rupture, creating a cloud of natural gas vapor that wafts across the landscape, ready to be ignited by a spark or hot exhaust pipe.

Such a disaster did occur in 1944, when 128 people died in Cleveland after two LNG tanks split open. Liquid gas spilled into city sewers, where it vaporized and exploded, destroying dozens of homes and two factories. Safety measures taken since then have prevented any repeat of the catastrophe, industry executives say.

There have been small-scale accidents. At least 20,000 gallons of liquefied gas leaked from a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. storage tank in 1991 near what is now Oriole Park at Camden Yards; the spill was safely contained by a dike.

In 1979, a worker at Cove Point was killed and another badly burned when a cinderblock building exploded after filling with vapors from leaking LNG.

"It felt like the porch was going to fall off the back of our house," recalls James G. Oneyear, a retired electrician who lives less than a mile from the terminal.

Gardner says the explosion occurred because fumes became trapped in the building. Plant infrastructure has been overhauled to vent any gas leaks to the air and prevent vapors from being confined, he says, the only way in which the gas can explode. A moat around each storage tank is large enough to prevent a spill from flooding any buildings.

"Anything's possible," the plant manager says. But unless vapors are trapped and build up, they will simply burn in a deceptively hot, nearly translucent fireball. Even a major gas fire, he says, should not generate enough heat to cut off Route 497, the two-lane road that winds down the cliff to the beachfront communities.

Some residents and watermen worry more about the tankers, each of which holds 2.5 billion cubic feet of liquefied gas.

"People are concerned about terrorists, with the ships coming up the bay," says Eileen Hadley, president of the Cove Lake Citizens' Association, a 33-family community about a mile south of Cove Point that uses the same two-lane access road.

As at other LNG terminals, the gas-laden ships are likely to be escorted up the bay by a Coast Guard vessel and two tugboats, on hand to push the tanker or any other ship or barge out of the way to avoid a collision. The Coast Guard will establish safety zones around the dock and around the loaded ships as they move.

The Coast Guard will seek public comment in the next few weeks on what precautions are needed to safeguard LNG tankers in the Chesapeake, which narrows to just seven miles at Cove Point.

Tankers entering Boston Harbor to unload LNG are protected by a shipping-free zone two miles ahead and a mile astern. The huge ships must turn around inside the harbor next to a bridge, but there have been no problems, says Lt. Mike Antonellis, assistant chief of inspections for the marine safety office in Boston. The Coast Guard is considering reducing the safety zone there.

But if the Coast Guard does impose a 3-mile-long safety zone around LNG tankers in the bay, fishermen and watermen worry that it could disrupt their activities - and more. Says Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association: "That's a disaster waiting to happen."

Hale, president of the county commission, says Calvert officials support the terminal's reopening if all safety concerns are resolved. He says he's confident they will be, though many residents complain that they were not invited to a public meeting on the project March 15 and that no one there had answers.

State officials have called on the federal energy commission to refuse Williams' request for an expedited review of its request to reopen the terminal. A thorough assessment of facility safety and its impact on fishing, boating and shipping is needed, state officials say, even if it delays the project.

"We're really not opposed to it, but we're not going to cut any corners," says Richard I. McLean of the Department of Natural Resources power plant research program.

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