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Lines drawn on gas plant

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 72-year-old retired school teacher lives just over a mile from the spot at the old Sparrows Point shipyard where a global power-supply company wants to process liquefied natural gas. And she has heard enough about the idea - which has politicians lining up against it - that she's worried her great-grandchildren might not be safe playing outside her home.

"If it happens, you'd be anxious about everything," says Martha Winston, whose modest two-story house is in the heart of historic Turners Station, just across Bear Creek from the proposed LNG terminal. "We feel most intimidated because we're so close to it."

The power supply company says that the plant would be safe, that it is far enough from homeowners to all but assure their safety even if there were a spill. Opponents say the project, which would involve moving tankers filled with concentrated fuel and as long as three football fields past areas where large numbers of people live, is an invitation to disaster - and terrorists.

The proposal for a plant on Sparrows Point will be the subject of federal hearings this week, at which residents plan to air their fears about safety issues that, after more than a dozen studies, are still in dispute among scientists.

"These studies don't tell me I'm safe," said Dunbar Brooks, vice president of the state school board and a community leader in the Turners Station area of Dundalk. "They tell me: 'Be afraid.'"

Judging by the most apocalyptic of the reports, written more than two decades ago for the civil defense arm of the Pentagon, an accident at a plant on Sparrows Point could create a low-lying, flammable fog over an area large enough to cover the Inner Harbor. Based on another report, LNG spilled from a ship at the proposed site could ignite and create a radius of deadly heat large enough to reach to Turners Station.

But another analysis, conducted by a large laboratory for the Department of Energy, says the danger zone would be less than a mile from the LNG tankers and terminal, and any leak or explosion would likely pose no real risk to Maryland residents or their property.

To some, LNG tankers are comparable to floating nuclear bombs. Why else, some in Dundalk ask, would armed patrols escort the tankers through Boston Harbor? Why else, they want to know, would the Coast Guard keep boats away from ships unloading at the Cove Point LNG facility in Calvert County? Why would there even be talk of shutting down the Bay Bridge as the LNG tankers pass below?

Former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke called LNG terminals and tankers prime targets for a terrorist attack. Clarke - who later worked for AES Corp., the company that wants to build a facility on Sparrows Point - said in a 2005 report that an attack near the site of a proposed, though ultimately rejected, Rhode Island facility could have killed 3,000.

But the study that many consider the most extensive look at the issue found little chance that anyone more than a mile away from an LNG spill would be hurt. AES officials say the nearest home to the plant site is 1.3 miles away.

Some, including officials with AES, say the vessels pose no more risk than a lot of other cargo ships coming into Baltimore's harbor virtually every day.

For this article, The Sun reviewed more than a dozen reports, with more than 800 pages of analysis and models of possible LNG spills, and interviewed the lead researchers who wrote five of the scientific studies.

Each study is based upon its own assumptions, scenarios, models and calculations. And all of them have been criticized.

Many of their authors say the results can't necessarily be applied to all locations. They, and others who have followed the issue, also point out that their models are limited by the lack of large-scale LNG spill experiments.

"We've tested a nuclear bomb," said Tim Riley, a California attorney who with his wife produced a film, The Risks and Danger of LNG, based in part on a study that offers the direst predictions. Riley, whose film has been viewed by elected officials and more than a dozen community groups in the Baltimore area, argues that no more LNG projects should be approved until the facilities can be proved safe.

"Until a large-spill test of LNG is done," he says, "we're just shooting in the dark."

Officials at AES Corp. say the most recent studies back their contention that the facility and the tankers carrying the fuel would be safe. They say opposition comes with any proposal for a project of considerable scale.

"Whether you're talking about a wind farm, a pipeline, a coal plant or an LNG terminal, nobody says, 'Thank God, you're putting it here,'" said Aaron Samson, director of LNG projects for AES. "Wherever you pick, whatever technology you use, big infrastructure projects aren't popular."

Sparrows Point is a smoke-belching, industrial peninsula, with 2,500 acres of plants and factories, chimneys and construction cranes - though many of the facilities that brought thousands of jobs have long been closed. More than 60,000 people live in the neighboring Dundalk and Edgemere areas, according to census figures.

The 60-acre site of the proposed LNG terminal is at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard, with water access ideal for tankers that can be as tall as 12-story buildings, on a spot available for heavy industry.

Natural gas chilled to 260 degrees below zero to condense it into a liquid that is more efficient for shipping would be brought to a terminal, warmed up to a gaseous state and distributed through pipelines to customers to the north.

LNG burns hotter than most fuels. A fire caused by a large spill could probably not be extinguished, experts say, and would have to burn itself out.

The terminal would be built on a point where Bear Creek empties into the Patapsco River, near the Key Bridge.

A decision hasn't been made about whether traffic on the Key Bridge or Bay Bridge would be stopped as the LNG ships pass, state officials including the governor have said. Bridges haven't been closed to traffic near other LNG facilities.

Lee McClelland, a retired ironworker who lives in Dundalk, opposes the LNG plant proposal. Bobbing in his boat off Sparrows Point and checking his global positioning system, McClelland figures it could be less than a mile from where the tankers would have to turn to the closest Turners Station house and the senior center on the waterfront.

"There's enough industry here," says McClelland.

The proposal from AES for the LNG terminal in Sparrows Point and an 87-mile pipeline from Sparrows Point through Harford County to southern Pennsylvania received a cool response when unveiled late last year, and opposition to the plan has intensified since. Elected officials at all levels of government have stated their opposition to the plan.

The proposal calls for dredging that, opponents say, would disturb toxic substances settled deep in the muck. They would like to see Sparrows Point used for recreation, not industry.

Still, the central issue from the beginning has been the potential danger to the residents near the proposed site as well as those along the pipeline that would be built.

Ann Paskiewicz, a Fallston area activist, says you only have to see a house blown up from a gas leak to have misgivings about the safety of gas pipes.

"And that's from a little one-inch line going into a house," she says. "Just imagine a 28-inch pipe."

AES officials have sought to address the concerns.

Aaron Samson, director of LNG projects for the company, said the AES pipe will be thicker, with more safety features, than the existing gas lines it will be near.

Studies of LNG chronicle accidents, including the spill that killed 128 in Cleveland six decades ago, the leak that killed one worker at Cove Point, the Calvert County plant, in 1979, and the explosion that killed 27 at an LNG plant in Algeria two years ago. But AES says the industry's overall safety record is stellar.

Samson said he has also tried to point out in community meetings that other LNG facilities are much closer to many more houses, making them more likely targets for terrorist attacks than a facility on Sparrows Point.

"This is something we can do safely," said Kent Morton, the manager for AES' Sparrows Point project.

He said the project would create hundreds of construction jobs and about 40 permanent positions.

Former Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a longtime advocate for the port of Baltimore who worked as a consultant for AES, says she supports the project for two reasons.

"Number one, the country needs energy," she says. "Number two, having the LNG ships come up would make a major contribution toward guaranteeing that our 50-foot channel is maintained. Why is that important? The port will close otherwise."

She says she isn't concerned that the LNG facility would be unsafe. "I know the people do," she said. "I'm looking into their concerns."

The opposition, though, is also a reaction to what eastern Baltimore County residents see as the latest unwanted project for the area. In these neighborhoods, a familiar rallying call is: "Don't dump it on Dundalk."

With insurance nightmares from Tropical Storm Isabel fresh in their minds, the LNG opponents say they also fear that recovery from an accident would be difficult, if not impossible.

"You can't rule out the extremes anymore," said Brooks, the Turners Station activist. "That's what Sept. 11 taught us. That's what Oklahoma City taught us. ... You have to err on the side of caution."

Even if the chances of catastrophe are slim, these residents say, the potential consequences are too damaging.

"It's about the value of a human life," says Carolyn Jones, president of the Greater Dundalk Alliance. "This project isn't worth the risk."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won't make a final decision about whether the Sparrows Point facility can be built until after AES submits a formal application this fall. But the agency will meet with residents starting tomorrow as part of its review of the proposal.

Last year, the commission approved - over the objections of many elected officials and experts - a LNG terminal for Fall River, Mass., that is within a mile of 9,000 residents.

Residents from Anne Arundel County to Pennsylvania are expected to ask the agency to turn down the application for the Sparrows Point project.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said he plans to testify against the project at tomorrow's hearing.

"I'm not against LNG," said Smith. "I'm against it being here, so close to so many houses and businesses. We're talking about a lot of risk."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told opponents last week that he would try to testify.

J. Mark Robinson, director of energy projects for the federal commission, said the agency considers the risk factors of LNG at specific locations.

"Safety is paramount," he said. "The commission will not approve a project that isn't considered safe."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

For more information on the various studies on LNG, go to baltimoresun.com/lng

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