While pledging support for eastern Baltimore County residents fighting a plan to build a liquefied natural gas terminal on Sparrows Point, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told those same activists yesterday that he was disappointed that they had asked for a state ethics inquiry into the work of his personal attorney.
"I love this community. We're going to win" the fight against the LNG project, Ehrlich told community activists at a meeting in Dundalk. He also repeated his defense of his lawyer, David Hamilton, saying the community's request for an inquiry into Hamilton's activities "hurt me personally."
Many Dundalk residents have vowed to fight the plans by global power supplier AES Corp. to build a $400 million LNG terminal at the site of the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard.
The residents have gained the support of elected officials at all levels of government but have questioned the depth of the governor's opposition, given that his personal attorney has worked on behalf of owners of the shipyard property.
At yesterday's meeting with community activists at the Dundalk headquarters of the Greater Dundalk Alliance's LNG Opposition Team, Ehrlich told county residents that he has long been against the LNG proposal because he shares their concerns that it would be too close to homes. The governor assured them that he would try to attend a hearing Monday with federal regulators concerning the LNG proposal.
Ehrlich wrote to federal regulators Wednesday saying that issues such as the way the LNG project could affect boaters and motorists, especially if bridges were closed as LNG tankers passed under them, have "led me to strengthen my opposition to this proposal."
"I believe that upon review, reports will demonstrate that potential for a catastrophic event during the transportation of this highly volatile material in and around our communities is remarkable," he wrote.
Democratic leaders questioned Ehrlich's commitment to oppose the LNG project.
"He could stop this thing in a second," said David Paulson, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. He added that if the state were to rescind its approval for dredging activities near the site the project would not go forward.
A lawyer for the opposition has alleged that Hamilton got Barletta-Willis LLC, the company that owns the former shipyard, a $150,000 state grant to dredge the shipping channel that AES Corp. would use to transport the liquefied natural gas.
"The problem with this whole thing is that once you start dredging, you're going down the wrong path," said Bart S. Fisher, the attorney for the opposition team. "It controls what happens to the future of Sparrows Point."
"What we don't want is the state paying for the noose that hangs us," Fisher said.
Sharon Beazley, a Dundalk activist leading the opposition team, told Ehrlich yesterday that she values his commitment to oppose the LNG project and said, "Our philosophy is not to impugn anyone's reputation."
But she added, "I think it's a valid question. We just want to know who, what and when."
Ehrlich didn't speak specifically about Hamilton's work for Barletta-Willis at yesterday's meeting, but the governor said Hamilton "never represented AES."
Hamilton's work for Barletta-Willis was first reported by The Washington Post last week. Hamilton told the Post in an interview that he is careful to obey state ethics laws and confines his activities in Annapolis to the role of a lawyer, not a lobbyist. He said that all of his firm's lobbying activities are handled by longtime Annapolis lobbyist J. William Pitcher.
Ethics commission records show that Pitcher is registered to lobby on behalf of AES Sparrows Point LNG, the Arlington, Va., company trying to build the LNG terminal.
AES has not requested a dredging permit, according to officials with the Army Corps of Engineers. But in its filings with the federal agency that oversees LNG projects, AES proposes to dredge 2.5 million to 4 million cubic yards of material from the Patapsco River and Bear Creek.
Barletta-Willis was granted a Army Corps of Engineers permit last year to dredge 600,000 cubic yards that would be disposed of at Hart-Miller Island and an additional 2.6 million cubic yards to be disposed of at another, undetermined site.
Barletta-Willis would have to receive approval for the disposal of the additional dredge spoils before beginning that work, said Joe DaVia, an environmental scientist with the Corps.
Ehrlich's meeting yesterday with LNG opponents follows a visit by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. this week.
Smith planned his Dundalk visit more than a week ago to "thank" activists working to stop the LNG project and "make sure they feel supported," said Donald I. Mohler, the executive's spokesman.
Mohler said the county staff was reviewing e-mails in response to a report in the Post last week that Hamilton tried to soften Baltimore County officials' opposition to the LNG project.
"We're looking into that allegation," said Mohler, adding that Smith remains opposed to the LNG proposal. Smith, who held a news conference in February to announce his opposition to the proposal, plans to testify at Monday's hearing with federal regulators, Mohler said.