Risk factors

The Baltimore Sun

It's difficult to understand how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could judge the proposed liquefied natural gas facility at Sparrows Point as environmentally acceptable, given the quantity of unknowns involved. But that's the conclusion of the agency's draft environmental impact statement, which nonetheless acknowledges there are a considerable number of concerns to be mitigated.

This much is clear: Momentum for the project proposed by Virginia-based AES Corp. appears to be growing. The Bush administration's FERC is not in the habit of turning down LNG proposals, and the recent environmental review reflects a distinct can-do spirit.

On closer inspection, however, the report raises questions galore. One of the most glaring: What happens to the 3.7 million cubic yards of contaminated soil that AES would need to dredge from the site? No nearby disposal site is available, and removing it by land would be a formidable undertaking.

What will the project mean for eastern Baltimore County's renaissance efforts? AES touts the jobs the project would bring, but county officials say they have heard from potential employers who fear locating anywhere near the site.

Indeed, there are still many legitimate security concerns. Tankers loaded with 217,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas are going to require armed escorts, underwater security sweeps, and sometimes shutting down significant portions of the Chesapeake Bay to boaters.

Is it really wise to place an LNG terminal so far into the bay and so close to a major urban center? We're not convinced that FERC has been adequately skeptical. And it's not helpful that FERC staff not only reviewed the environmental impact report but helped write it, too.

Natural gas has a role in the nation's energy future, and we support reasonable efforts to boost supply. The question is, given the various risks involved, is the former Bethlehem shipyard the best possible place to handle LNG, a highly volatile and potentially explosive form of it? The latest report doesn't provide an adequate answer.

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