Justices reject LNG appeal

The Baltimore Sun

A proposed natural gas terminal at Sparrows Point overcame a crucial hurdle yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not consider an appeal by Baltimore County that sought to stop the project.

The court's decision eliminated what proponents said could be the last legal obstacle to construction of the liquefied natural gas plant at the former shipyard near Dundalk. The plan still must receive federal approval, and county officials said yesterday that they will continue to fight the project.

"The Supreme Court's decision makes us closer to putting shovels in the dirt in fall of 2009," said Rod Easter, president of the Maryland State and Washington D.C. Building Trades Council, who estimated that about 400 workers would take four years to build the plant.

Similar expressions of support came from other labor union leaders who foresee a potential economic upside to the plant and an 88-mile pipeline that is to carry the gas to southern Pennsylvania.

But opposition remained strong, particularly among people who live near Sparrows Point or whose properties will be traversed by the pipeline. Many have raised safety concerns, among them Ann Paszkiewicz, whose 12-acre property near Fallston High School in Harford County on which she had planned to build a house, is in the pipe's path.

"Four hundred temporary jobs!" she sneered. "What a shame for the bay and the environment."

Baltimore County officials had sought to challenge a federal appellate court ruling in May that found they had violated the Natural Gas Act when they changed zoning regulations to prohibit construction of such terminals in coastal areas.

Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County government, said: "We're obviously disappointed that the Supreme Court chose not to hear this case, but the county will continue to work closely with our state and congressional leaders to fight this dangerous facility. Keep in mind that there's still a very long road ahead, with extensive reviews and regulatory processes."

Kobler said that beyond the safety and environmental concerns surrounding the plant, James T. Smith Jr., Baltimore County's chief executive, believes it to be "extremely bad national energy policy to further increase our dependence on foreign energy sources."

Plant proponents still face a key ruling before construction can begin: The five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to vote next month on whether to approve the LNG project, spearheaded by Virginia-based AES Corp., at the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard. Earlier this year, FERC staff members recommended conditional approval of the project.

County Attorney John E. Beverungen wrote to the developer in June that officials have "no intention of placing Baltimore County's emergency responders in harm's way to further AES's private operation and profit motives." He suggested that the company supply its own emergency and security services, similar to the in-house fire department once operated at the site by Bethlehem Steel.

And yet county firefighters expect to deal with any risk the gas plant and pipeline might pose, according to Mike Day, president of the Baltimore County Professional Fire Fighters Association, which represents about 1,000 firefighters and paramedics.

"I think it's time that Baltimore County admit that it's going to occur," Day said yesterday about the plant's construction. "If there's a 1 percent chance that it'll occur, we need to be 100 percent prepared."

Day said people in Dundalk, Edgemere and Sparrows Point are "starving for employment," which the plant would help provide. "Somebody needs to point out the spinoff benefits of this," he said. "To be realistic, Baltimore County has attempted to put up every possible wall, and I think it was to appease a vocal minority."

Day and Easter plan to join representatives of several other groups - including United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27, United Steelworkers Local 9477, AFL-CIO's Baltimore Central Labor Council and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association - today to announce the launch of the Sparrows Point Workforce Alliance.

A mission statement for the group says it plans to bring together "community, religious, business, labor and government leaders to leverage the opportunity presented by the LNG terminal and create real economic development projects that improve the quality of life of all of our neighbors."

In June, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez concluded that the need for natural gas outweighed any environmental damage that could be caused by the LNG terminal and the dredging of the Patapsco River to accommodate tankers importing the fuel.

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