Prince George's County lawmakers introduced emergency legislation yesterday that would bar companies from storing liquefied natural gas in highly populated areas, a move that could end a bid by Washington Gas to place such a facility in Chillum.
State legislators said the bill grows out of recent concerns about the ability of Washington Gas to respond to reports of persistent gas leaks in Prince George's. Last week, after a District Heights house exploded, company officials acknowledged that leaks have occurred more frequently in the county in the past 18 months because seals within the mechanical couplings that link service lines are deteriorating.
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The explosion has left residents of Chillum and Avondale, in the unincorporated section of Hyattsville, more leery of an effort by Washington Gas to convert a plant that houses several underground pipelines into a storage area for liquefied natural gas. Several homes and the West Hyattsville Metro station are near the site.
Liquefied natural gas is not flammable, but a recent government-commissioned study found that terrorist attacks on tankers carrying it could trigger a massive fire.
"The Chillum area is inside the Beltway. It's very populated," said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's), one of the sponsors of the bill. "There are shopping areas, schools, child-care centers all right near there."
Betty Singleton, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said, "This is really placing a bomb in my back yard."
The bill would require the state's Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, to regularly inspect liquefied natural gas plants and their pipelines. Gas companies that receive complaints about odors near a plant would have to immediately notify the commission and repair any damage. If company officials violate the law, they could be held liable for any death or damage and face imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 for each day the violation continues.
"It also goes to put the gas companies and providers on notice that if they're not taking precautions and if they're not careful, we will be watching them," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's), another bill sponsor.
Tim Sargeant, a spokesman for Washington Gas, said company officials were reviewing the bill and would have no comment.
Washington Gas has been seeking permission from the Prince George's County Council and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to install a storage tank that could hold 12 million gallons of liquefied natural gas at the Chillum site, which would be its first such facility in the area. The company maintained vaporized natural gas storage tanks there until the mid-1990s.
There are about 100 liquefied natural gas storage facilities in the United States, including one in Baltimore. In Calvert County, Dominion Resources Inc. operates Calvert Cove, a terminal where liquefied natural gas delivered by tanker from overseas is converted to vaporized gas.
Company officials said the new plant, scheduled for completion in 2008, would be guarded at all times and contain safety features such as gas detectors, automatic shutdown and doubled-layered containment for the tank storing liquefied natural gas, Sargeant said. Storing it would help the company get through a natural gas shortage that is expected to occur in 2008, he said.
The company responded to the District Heights explosion by pledging $75 million last week to replace service lines that have faulty couplings.
Some lawmakers said Washington Gas chose Chillum because it is an older community.
"They're creating this facility to serve suburban areas," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), "but they're afraid to put them in suburban areas where people don't want them, so they come back and put them in inner-Beltway areas where they think they can get away with it."