Federal officials are recommending conditional approval for a liquefied natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point, over the objections of community leaders and elected officials.
In a preliminary report released yesterday, the staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that the project proposed by AES Corp. could be "environmentally acceptable" with additional work.
The report calls for the Arlington, Va., company to address such issues as how to handle the sediment that would have to be dredged from the Patapsco River to accommodate the large tankers carrying the imported liquid gas.
Under the company proposal, the terminal would be built at the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard, where the LNG would be returned to its gaseous state and pumped to Pennsylvania through an 88-mile pipeline to be built for distribution.
A final staff report is expected to be complete in mid-August, with the five-member commission tentatively scheduled to make a final decision about the project by the end of November.
In justifying its findings yesterday, the agency's staff said the proposed location is an "industrial port setting" and the pipeline would follow existing rights of way for much of the proposed route.
The initial report doesn't assure approval, but it does indicate that the project is moving forward, according to industry experts.
The commissioners have rejected only one LNG project. Six LNG import terminals have been built or are under construction in the United States. Three times as many - 22 - LNG projects have been approved by FERC and the U.S. Coast Guard but are being held up by lawsuits or finances.
Baltimore County officials and community leaders said they were reviewing and analyzing the report yesterday afternoon. Called a draft Environmental Impact Statement - even though it also covers security, economic and other issues - the report released yesterday is hundreds of pages long.
Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman, said County Executive James T. Smith Jr. continues to believe that the proposed location of the LNG terminal is dangerous and would be detrimental to the nearby communities.
"Jim Smith continues to stand with families in eastern Baltimore County to oppose this facility, and that is not going to change," she said.
The project has been criticized by elected officials at every level. They say the facility is too close to homes in the Dundalk area, especially to the historically black neighborhood of Turners Station, if there were an accident or a terrorist attack on the LNG tankers or facility.
Community leaders and company officials have been sparring about "worst-case scenarios" since the plant was first proposed more than two years ago.
The elected officials and activists also say the project would harm the environment because of sediment that would be stirred up from the dredging needed to be done over a 118-acre area of the Patapsco River near the shipyard. Some of the dredging would have be redone every six years, according to the report.
The company says that the dredging would remove some of the toxic substances left by industrial companies in the area and that the LNG business will generate $13 million annually in state and local taxes.
Some labor leaders support the project, which would be built by unionized construction workers.
Roderick "Rod" Easter, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, estimated that the project would generate four years of full-time work for about 375 workers.
"I feel like this is a positive step in the right direction," Easter said after reviewing the draft report yesterday. "It shows the right things are being done and that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is looking at it as a positive project that could work."
In February, the U.S. Coast Guard found that the company hasn't adequately addressed safety concerns but said the area could "be made suitable" for the LNG tankers with additional security measures.
The Coast Guard would require a combination of armed LNG escorts, patrols from the air and shore and periodic inspections by divers, according to unclassified summaries of the report, known as a water suitability assessment.
Before the final report is issued, the company needs to finalize the details about security and emergency response, in addition to several other technical reports.
The review by the commission and other federal and state agencies will ensure that the Sparrows Point project "either benefits human health and the natural environment or has manageable impacts," Kent Morton, an AES project manager, wrote in a statement yesterday.
"When viewed objectively - especially in light of the region's growing energy demands and stated environmental improvement goals - the AES Project fills a variety of needs for businesses, industry and, perhaps especially, the millions of area energy consumers who care about both our natural surroundings and rising energy costs," Morton said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose district includes Sparrows Point, said yesterday's draft report doesn't alleviate his concerns about the LNG project. He said the report only shows that AES has the potential to meet the minimal, major requirements of the commission.
"From the very start, I have said the proposed liquefied natural gas plant is absolutely inappropriate for this residential area in Eastern Baltimore County," Ruppersberger said in a written statement.
While federal law requires the commission to consult with state and local governments regarding safety concerns, the federal agency makes the final decision about LNG projects.
A state government can decide not to issue permits based on environmental standards, but the U.S. secretary of commerce can override that decision.
Baltimore County has prohibited LNG facilities in waterfront areas as part of its Coastal Zone Management Act. But a federal appeals court has not decided whether the county's prohibition is legal.
The commission will accept comments on the Sparrows Point LNG report through June 16.
Proposed LNG project
A terminal would be built at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard to receive large overseas tankers carrying the super-chilled, liquefied natural gas.
The plan calls for building an 88-mile, 30-inch pipeline from Sparrows Point to Eagle, Pa.
The proposed pipeline would cross within 50 feet of 179 residences and 46 other buildings.
The terminal would require periodic dredging of a 118-acre area of the Patapsco River.
The terminal would receive two or three overseas LNG ships a week.
Public hearings on the LNG report
June 9, Patapsco High School, 8100 Wise Ave., Dundalk
June 11, East Brandywine Fire Hall, 2096 Bondsville Road, Dowingtown, Pa.
June 12: Richlin Ballroom, 1700 Van Bibber Road, Edgewood
All meetings will be at 7 p.m.
[Source: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission]