By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
In a quiet Chillum neighborhood of modest old homes just beyond the District border, residents say the last thing they want to see built near their Metro station is a liquefied natural gas storage tank.
For years, community activists have tried to stop Washington Gas's plan to build a 13 million-gallon storage tank, which would be the first LNG storage facility inside the Capital Beltway. Residents fear the gas tank, which would be in a densely populated area about a block from the West Hyattsville Metro station, could thwart redevelopment in Chillum and put the neighborhood in danger.
So they have taken their fight to the General Assembly, where Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George's) has introduced legislation that effectively would stop the utility from building on the Chillum location. The bill is gaining support, having been endorsed by the Prince George's County delegation. The House Economic Matters Committee heard testimony from community activists and utility officials yesterday.
The legislation would prevent state utility regulators from granting construction approval for LNG facilities in Prince George's and within two miles of any residence in the county. Although the bill does not name the Washington Gas plant, its passage would prevent the utility from building the tank in Chillum.
Imani Kazana, a founding member of the neighborhood's Washington Gas Watch Alliance, told lawmakers that she fears that the LNG tank could become a target for wrongdoers or, worse, terrorists.
"No facility is perfectly safe, and no residential neighborhood should be subjected to that kind of vulnerability," Kazana said.
"It's too dangerous, it's too close up to people, and too many things could happen," she said in an interview. "You'd literally have to have the National Guard standing there every few feet around the perimeter to make sure nobody gets across there and does damage."
Steven Jumper, regional public policy director for Washington Gas, told the panel of lawmakers that the site would be secure and that the company would comply with federal safety standards.
There are about 60 LNG storage facilities in operation nationwide, and some are in such major population centers as Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia, said Thomas L. Moskitis, managing director of external affairs at the American Gas Association.
Washington Gas owns the 21-acre site on Chillum Road near Queens Chapel Road. The utility stored natural gas -- but not liquefied natural gas -- there for about six decades before terminating operations several years ago.
Jumper urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying that demand for liquefied natural gas outpaces supply in the Washington region and that an additional storage facility is critical.
He warned that not building the Chillum facility would force the utility to increase rates for business and residential customers it serves in Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Calvert, St. Mary's and Frederick counties.
The Chillum facility already has some pipelines. Building a storage tank in another spot would require installing about 25 miles of pipes and cost $687 million, according to the company. The Chillum tank is estimated to cost $164 million.
"There are considerable costs that can be avoided for all Maryland ratepayers" if the tank is put in Chillum, Jumper said.
Moskitis, who also testified against the bill, said the Chillum facility is necessary to meet regional demand for liquefied natural gas.
"That proposed storage facility represents by far the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver natural gas to the residents of Prince George's County," Moskitis said. "An LNG storage facility in Chillum makes abundant sense."
Statewide legislation designed to stop the utility's plans has been introduced in previous years and failed. But lawmakers believe this year's legislation, which was narrowly tailored to apply only to Prince George's, has a stronger chance of passing.
Ivey, whose district includes Chillum, said the bill would protect residential neighborhoods.
"It's a more stringent standard that protects vulnerable populations," Ivey said in her testimony yesterday. "These are inappropriate locations for a liquefied natural gas storage facility."
On a recent tour of the neighborhood with Washington Gas Watch Alliance leaders Stuart Eisenberg and Kazana, Sen. David Harrington (D-Prince George's) said he felt Washington Gas was preying on an older community.
"Older communities are becoming besieged with these highly industrialized activities," Harrington said. "As a county, we've got to always ask, why are we fighting this in these older communities?"
Harrington, who was president of the County Council before being appointed to the Senate last month, said Chillum, like other Prince George's communities, is targeted for transit-oriented redevelopment.
Eisenberg said he fears that the LNG tank would be a turnoff for developers. "I'm afraid of the chill it will put, no pun intended, into economic development in this area," he said.
Residents have suggested that Washington Gas look elsewhere for a site for its LNG tank.
"There's got to be some parcels somewhere," Kazana told lawmakers.
Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George's) asked Jumper whether the company would consider other locations.
"We just were not successful in finding alternative locations," Jumper replied.