House passes bills to impede natural gas site approval

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Two bills that would hinder the approval of a liquefied natural gas facility passed favorably out of the House of Delegates this week, strengthening Chillum residents’ effort to block such a facility in their neighborhood.

The bills, which passed by wide margins, would mandate a three-fourths majority vote by the county’s District Council to approve a liquefied natural gas facility, requiring a seven-of-nine vote as opposed to a simple five-vote majority. The tank at the root of the bills is one proposed by Washington Gas near the West Hyattsville Metro stop. Residents say the potentially volatile and dangerous facility would be unreasonably close to their homes.

‘‘It’s an inappropriate site,” said Imani Kazana, president of the Avondale Citizens Association and one of those leading the opposition. ‘‘It’s in a densely-populated area – not just a residential area.”

Kazana lives within a quarter mile of the facility. She said 3,000 residents live within a half mile of the site.

The movement on the General Assembly bills comes as hearings continue before the county’s zoning hearing examiner. Dozens of residents and officials marched in protest of the tank early this month, and Kazana said she is prepared to fight Washington Gas ‘‘to the ends of the earth.”

The House bill that applies to the District Council kicks in for facilities over 5,000 gallons – Washington Gas wants a 12-million-gallon tank.

Washington Gas argues that not only would their facility be safely constructed under strict federal regulations, with round-the-clock oversight and double-walled protection – but the cost of not building such a facility would be passed on to the consumer.

Spokesman Tim Sargeant said if the company does not build the LNG tank, it would be faced with $430 million more in costs, which would be reflected in customer rate increases.

He said approving the LNG site would help lawmakers and residents avoid the type of headache generated by impending electric rate increases.

‘‘What lawmakers have is an option,” Sargeant said. ‘‘Their support of LNG storage will really help our natural gas customers.” Efforts to delay the LNG bill in the House of Delegates were rejected on Saturday.

Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-Dist. 29A) of Mechanicsville, chairman of the Southern Maryland Delegation, requested the delay because he — along with other Southern Maryland lawmakers — are worried their constituents would see higher electricity costs if the plant is not built. The House defeated those efforts and overwhelmingly passed the bill to the Senate where it is pending today.

Residents and groups such as the Sierra Club are concerned the storage of liquefied natural gas is simply too dangerous near homes.

‘‘We are not opposed to LNG as an energy source,” said the Sierra Club’s Megan Lewis. ‘‘We are against it because of its location in the middle of a residential area.”

Liquefied natural gas is 600 times more dense than regular natural gas, making it economical to store and transport. But the large quantities of gas stored in such facilities can be flammable under certain conditions once it returns to its gaseous state.

Del. Anne Healey (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville said she is personally opposed to the Chillum proposal, but that the bills serve only to subject such plans to higher scrutiny. ‘‘It should get enough scrutiny for it to be a consensus before it’s adopted,” she said.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park, who represents the district that includes the proposed LNG facility in Chillum, said that he is hopeful that the local bill is approved by the Senate. One of the Senate’s leading environmentalists, Pinsky said LNG power is one of the cleaner methods available.

He is concerned, however, about the risks of the residents in Chillum who fear that the facility could be dangerous. He is hopeful that the Senate will go along with the House and pass the local bill.