Hundreds of residents long accustomed to living alongside factories, chemical plants, landfills and industrial smokestacks filled an Eastern Baltimore County fire hall last night to fight a proposed liquefied natural gas plant that they said poses a worse threat than anything their communities have faced.
Residents, watermen and elected officials from three levels of government told federal regulators that they fear explosions, terrorist threats and restricted access to the waterways where they play and earn their livings if a global power supply company is allowed to build an LNG terminal on Sparrows Point.
"Since 1893, this community has been abused with toxins and pollutants," said Sharon Beazley, coordinator of the LNG opposition team. "It was a trade-off," she said of the various industries that brought hazards along with well-paying jobs to southeastern Baltimore County.
"Well, you know what guys? One hundred years is long enough."
With all 300 seats in the North Point-Edgemere Volunteer Fire Company hall filled, some in the crowd stood along the walls last night. More than 60 people signed up to address four representatives of the federal agencies that will review the proposal.
Among them were county councilmen, state representatives, county and state government officials, representatives of Maryland's members of Congress, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and, nearly two hours into the hearing, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"We voted for you, Bob," one woman shouted from the audience as Ehrlich stepped to the podium, "and we're getting ready to vote again."
Ehrlich reiterated his administration's opposition to the construction of the terminal, reminding the audience that he grew up in Arbutus, an area similar, he said, to Sparrows Point, but on the opposite side of the county.
"This area grew up around industrial-era America," Ehrlich said. "Dundalk became a romanticized town because it grew up around the shipyard, around the steel facility, as a community holding a lot of promise to folks who didn't have a lot of money."
Over the years, he said, "whatever is toxic happened to end up in eastern Baltimore County, it seems. ... We're beginning to turn things around."
AES Corp. wants to process LNG - natural gas that is chilled to 260 degrees below zero, condensing it into a liquid that is more efficient for shipping - at the old Sparrows Point shipyard. The corporation has proposed building a $400 million shipping terminal and processing plant on a 60-acre plot, on a point where Bear Creek empties into the Patapsco River, near the Key Bridge.
AES's plans also call for the construction of an 87-mile natural gas pipeline - at a cost of $200 million to $250 million - from Sparrows Point through Harford County to southern Pennsylvania.
What concerns many residents, as well as local and state politicians who have lined up against the proposed facility, is the prospect of shipping potentially hazardous gas through the Chesapeake Bay to a site near the communities of Dundalk and Edgemere, home to more than 60,000 people.
LNG, if spilled, can form a vapor cloud that that could ignite, burn back to the source of the spill and continue to burn. Because 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.
"To bring almost daily shipments of liquefied natural gas up the Chesapeake Bay, under the Bay Bridge, into one of the busiest ports in the United States and into a major population center is just not reasonable and should not happen," Smith, the Baltimore County executive, told the federal regulators last night. He added, "This project makes no sense socially, economically or environmentally, and it endangers the public safety of thousands of individuals in Baltimore County."
County Fire Chief John Hohman said that he has been asked repeatedly what his department would need to be adequately prepared to respond to an LNG disaster in the county.
"There is no way to prepare for that kind of disaster, and if we believe there is, we are simply fooling ourselves and our citizens," he said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won't make a final decision about whether AES can build the facility until after the company submits a formal application this fall. But the federal commission and Coast Guard are holding public hearings this week as part of their review.
Meetings are scheduled for 7 tonight at the East Brandywine Fire Hall in Downingtown, Pa., and 7 p.m. tomorrow at Harford Community College in Bel Air.