Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state's billion-dollar economic engine at the port of Baltimore would be crippled if anything went wrong at a proposed liquefied natural gas facility on Sparrows Point. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. predicted that local emergency responders could not begin to evacuate residents and workers or fight a fire at the plant.
And Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she was worried that an LNG plant would create a terrorist target in the Washington region and the potential for "an accident with ghoulish consequences."
"We're talking about burns, vapor clouds and asphyxiation," she said during a congressional hearing yesterday in Baltimore - the first of two being held off Capitol Hill to examine the safety and security of LNG terminals.
AES Corp., a global power-supply company in Arlington, Va., has submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a terminal and processing plant at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard and to construct an 87-mile pipeline to southern Pennsylvania, where the processed gas would be distributed.
The company is also seeking permission to dredge a 117-acre area near the shipyard to accommodate the large tankers carrying the imported liquid gas.
An AES official defended the company's proposal at yesterday's hearing, saying experts agreed that Sparrows Point was a safe and "remote" location.
Aaron Samson, managing director of LNG projects for AES, said that in a "worst-case scenario" the heat from an LNG explosion would be felt a mile away.
The nearest homes, in the Turners Station neighborhood, are 1.2 miles away.
Asked why so many elected officials and residents were opposed to the project, Samson said, "LNG is new. In the post-9/11 world, it's a very emotional issue."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, arranged for yesterday's hearing to be held at the University of Maryland School of Law so that residents, officials and Coast Guard commanders could testify at the same time.
The panel's findings, after a May 7 hearing in New York, could have national implications because more than a dozen on- and offshore LNG import terminals are proposed across the nation, Cummings said.
Cummings said he was disturbed by the Coast Guard's changing role in providing security at the LNG plant at Cove Point in Southern Maryland, the state's only LNG import facility - and its possible implications on the proposed LNG terminal on Sparrows Point.
"We have nothing but respect for the Coast Guard," the Baltimore Democrat said. "But our job is to prevent, prevent, prevent."
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger quizzed Capt. Brian D. Kelly, commander of the Coast Guard's Baltimore sector, and Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, director of inspection and compliance for the Coast Guard, about what security functions the agency was training deputy sheriffs to provide at Cove Point.
Told that the Calvert County Sheriff's Office would provide the boat and officers to watch over LNG ships at Cove Point during the 24-hour period of unloading, Mikulski asked incredulously, "We're asking them to deter a predatory attack?"
Coast Guard commanders said they would continue to inspect the tankers and provide armed escorts of the LNG ships at some points during transit.
Coast Guard officials said their study of the Sparrows Point LNG proposal - known as a Water Suitability Assessment - is not complete. Because of that, they said, they were unable to provide details of their security plan or say whether they would recommend closing the Bay Bridge while the LNG ships passed beneath it.
Two community activists from Dundalk, Dunbar Brooks and Sharon Beazley, testified before the panel, saying they remain troubled by the lack of details about how residents would be protected.
They, like many of the elected officials, are also worried about the environmental impact of the proposed dredging.
"They want their children to grow up," Cummings said. "These are real concerns."
Critics of the project have been frustrated by how little local and state governments have to say about the approval of a new LNG import facility. Although the FERC consults with the Coast Guard, the commission decides where the onshore LNG import terminals can be built.
A state government can decide not to issue permits based on environmental standards, but the U.S. secretary of commerce can override that decision.
Beazley, one of the community leaders, said she hoped that Congress would introduce a measure allowing state governors to veto LNG projects.
Congressional leaders did not unveil new legislative or budgetary proposals yesterday but vowed to continue fighting the project.
"We're going to hold the Coast Guard commanders to standards of strict accountability," Cummings said. "They've got to follow through within their own rules."