In a fiery meeting drawing hundreds of people last night, resident after resident and official after official told why Dundalk is the wrong place for a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal.
At a hearing before federal regulators, they spoke against a plan that they said would harm the Chesapeake Bay, threaten the safety of people living in eastern Baltimore County and harm the economy that millions of tax dollars have been spent to improve.
Elected officials and community leaders said they also had growing doubts about the process federal officials were using to evaluate the proposal by AES Corp., a global power-supply company that wants to construct the LNG terminal at the old Bethlehem Steel shipyard to receive overseas tankers carrying the imported fuel, and an 88-mile pipeline to Pennsylvania to distribute the gas.
"I begin by first raising serious concern with the entire FERC process, which provides that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission both develop the environmental safety impact statement and then review its own document," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said to applause from a crowd of about 400 people at Patapsco High School. Smith also said that he wouldn't spend county money to provide security for the facility.
Other officials, including Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, were also critical of the process and the amount of information about the project yet to be supplied to the FERC and to the Coast Guard.
For example, a plan about where material dredged over a 118-acre area in the Patapsco River would be disposed of had not been submitted, said John R. Griffin, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.
David A.C. Carroll, head of the county's Office of Sustainability, estimated that it would take two years and hundreds of trucks daily to dispose of the dredge waste.
"In truth, I believe we shouldn't even be here this evening," Griffin said. "This project is too close to a major population center and too insensitive to the needs of adjacent communities."
The nearest neighborhood, Turners Station in Dundalk, is less than two miles from the shipyard. The pipeline through Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties and Pennsylvania would be less than a few hundred feet, in some spots, from schools and houses.
"The proposed site is fraught with every negative, from threats of terrorism to environmental degradation to the awful impact on the nearby heavily populated communities that would put them at ground zero should a catastrophe occur," County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. said.
Although Dundalk residents have grown accustomed to living alongside industrial smokestacks and factories, many community leaders feel that the LNG plant poses dangers that won't be offset by the jobs generated by, for example, the steel plant. AES officials have said the LNG plant would generate about 50 permanent jobs.
The project has support from labor groups, including the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO. Union leaders estimate that the construction of the LNG plant and pipeline would generate about 375 full-time jobs for four years. AES has promised that the work would be done with union labor.
Last month, a federal appeals court struck down a county law that banned LNG plants as part of the local coastal zone management plan, aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas.
And earlier this year, staff at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommended conditional approval for the LNG project.
Residents and elected officials asked the officials to reconsider the preliminary findings.
"I don't know of any issue as serious or as potentially disastrous as this one here," state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. said.
Ruppersberger said, "This facility is wrong for the neighborhood, wrong for the bay and wrong for our nation's security."
Last night's hearing was the first of three public forums this week about the project. Other hearings are scheduled tomorrow at East Brandywine Fire Hall, 2096 Bondsville Road in Downingtown, Pa.; and Thursday at the Richlin Ballroom, 1700 Van Bibber Road, Edgewood. Both hearings begin at 7 p.m.
The commission will also accept written comments on the draft report through Monday. The Army Corps of Engineers will accept comments through June 26. A final staff report is expected to be complete in mid-August, with the five-member commission tentatively scheduled to make a final decision by the end of November.