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Cove Point Plant Stirs Statewide Angst

Joel McCord

The hulking liquefied natural gas terminal at Cove Point in Calvert County stretches more than a mile into Chesapeake Bay. It has been almost dormant for years, serving mostly as a home for osprey.

But now, Virginia based Dominion Power has applied for permits to build facilities to export, rather than import, natural gas. And the neighbors are scared.

Tracey Eno, who lives in one of the communities off the two lane road that leads to the terminal, worries that neither she nor her neighbors have any way out if there’s a problem at the plant. After all, she says, the county code requires homes to have escape routes in case of fire. In this case, there are some 260 homes with one escape route; the road that runs past the plant.

But Pam Faggert, Dominion’s chief environmental officer, says the U.S. Department of Transportation has already told the company it believes the facility is safe. And besides, Dominion is planning “road improvements to reduce traffic congestion about the facility.”

The terminal opened in 1978 as an import facility, drawing as many as 85 ships a year. But the domestic market for imported natural gas dried up and the tanks at Cove Point have been used mostly for storage since then. Now, the export market is booming and Dominion wants to take advantage of that with a $3.8 billion expansion that would allow it to liquefy natural gas and ship it to India and Japan.

The company has applied to Maryland’s Public Service Commission for permits to build a 130 megawatt power plant to run the cooling equipment for the liquefaction process. And that’s something else that bothers the neighbors. They worry about the noise and the gases that could be vented during the process; nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and other gases. “What I’m seeing is my property value’s going to go down, my health is at risk, my safety is at risk,” said Eno. “And all of this is being forced on us.”

But Faggert says the needn’t worry. The firm will have to meet strict environmental requirements and already has installed some controls. In addition, the plans include a large noise wall to hold in sound. “We're subject to noise requirements,” Faggert said. “And our regulatory approvals will require that we comply with all those noise requirements so that we continue to be good neighbors in the communities where we’ve operated for the last 40 years.”

The PSC held a public hearing that drew roughly 800 people to Patuxent High School, a few miles from the plant last weekend. In addition to opponents in red T-shirts, there were iron workers, operating engineers and electrical workers looking for jobs—3,000 construction jobs over two years and 75 permanent jobs, according to Dominion estimates.

The union members gathered in the parking lot before the hearing and filled blocks of seats in the auditorium, wearing matching, brand new dark blue baseball caps emblazoned with a white, script "yes." Rich Wilkinson, a union electrician from St. Mary’s County, said the plant expansion could mean jobs for as many as 500 electricians who have been out of work and “put a lot of money into the county, a lot into the revenue.”

Calvert County’s commissioners say they expect as much as $40 million a year in additional property tax revenue from the expanded plant. But objections to Dominion’s proposal stretch beyond Calvert County. Environmental groups have linked the plan to expand Cove Point to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale by blasting it with water mixed with sand and chemicals.

Hundreds of protesters rallied in Baltimore’s War Memorial Plaza two weeks ago and marched to the Schaefer Tower on St. Paul Place where the PSC was hearing testimony on the power plant proposal.

Nadine Grabania, who operates a winery in Friendsville in Garrett County, said that approving Dominion’s plans would increase pressure to allow fracking in Western Maryland to meet the increased demand at the new terminal. And that would endanger underground water sources. They have some 14,000 homes in Garrett County on wells, she said. “I don’t think they should be at risk for energy development unless we can find a way to avoid this.”

She talked about a gas well that blew up in Dunkard Township, Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive north of Friendsville, killing one worker and injuring another. The fire that burned for four days after the Feb. 11 explosion was so hot it melted the tires on emergency vehicles, she said. “Having that in our neighborhood, where just as that was happening you couldn’t move,” she said. “We were snowed in. I just don’t know how Hazmat teams would respond to an event like that in rugged Western Maryland.”

Ted Cady, from Myersville in Frederick County, was protesting a compressor Dominion plans to build in his town to help move the gas from other states to market. The infrastructure to support fracking “will pollute our small, rural towns all for the almighty dollar, profits for a few,” he said.

The opponents want a full blown environmental impact statement, which could take two years to produce. Mike Tidwell, who has been organizing the protests for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said there is more at stake than the facility at Cove Point. “There are a lot of unknowns here,” he said. “And why can’t we at least slow down the process and get a full environmental impact statement?”

But Dominion’s Faggert said questions about fracking are irrelevant to the power plant application before the PSC. Her company isn’t involved in the production or transmission of natural gas, she said. “Those subjects would be the subject of another proceeding.”

She said the environmental impact statement is unnecessary because the construction would take plant within the existing footprint of the plant, which underwent an environmental impact statement (EIS) review six years ago as part of an earlier Cove Point expansion project. Federal regulators require only an environmental assessment, or EA, which is not as stringent as an EIS.

The Public Service Commission must decide on Dominion’s application by May 30. FERC has not set a deadline for its ruling.