The task at hand may have been inspecting the security of two of the region's major energy facilities, but that didn't mean Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) couldn't have a little fun, too.
As a U.S. Coast Guard boat ferried him to the Cove Point liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal under a scorching sun and nearly cloudless sky Monday afternoon, the No. 2 Democrat in the House had a flash of inspiration. "Time to get the skis out!" he yelled.
Well, maybe not that much fun. Most of Hoyer's afternoon tour through Calvert County consisted of staid briefings on the safety measures and general operations of the LNG terminal and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.
But a problem arose when he was handed a neon-orange life vest before boarding the Coast Guard ship. It didn't fit.
"This is a large?" he asked as he tried to wriggle into it. "I need to lose some weight here."
Someone quickly noticed that the flotation device was in fact a medium. "Doesn't that make you feel better?" a Hoyer aide asked. The congressman donned the correct size but said, "It's still pretty tight."
Whether the vest was tight or not, Coast Guard boat No. 41330 was ready to go, flanked by a smaller vessel with a machine gun mounted on its bow. In a few minutes, the boat pulled up at the wide Cove Point offshore platform where tankers unload natural gas at the facility, which is owned by the Virginia-based Dominion Resources energy company.
A gigantic diamond-shaped white sign with orange borders warned: "Restricted Area/Keep Back/500 Yd./Authority: Dept. of Homeland Security."
After stepping onto the platform, Hoyer immediately noticed something amiss. Among bits and pieces of deceased crustaceans littering the deck, a small battery glistened in the sun. The congressman picked it up and handed it to a Dominion employee in a white hard hat. The worker looked startled.
A few minutes of stair-climbing brought Hoyer and his entourage to the top of the platform, where sea gulls perched atop light fixtures. Michael Gardner, operations manager at the facility, recounted the site's opening in 1978 and its plans for expansion.
But Hoyer wanted to know about the safety record of the terminal and other operations like it.
He asked what the worst accident had been in dealing with such a facility. "What would be the worst-case scenario?"
Gardner told him about disasters in far-flung locations such as Algeria and India but said none threatened public safety or was caused by problems with liquefied natural gas.
"So essentially those were industrial accidents, unrelated to the LNG?" Hoyer asked. Gardner nodded.
The Dominion employees hailed Hoyer for supporting an energy bill approved last week by Congress that included an estimated $85 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks for the energy industry.
"I want to publicly thank you for your vote for the energy bill," one worker said.
On the trip back to the Solomons Island wharf, Hoyer rode on the smaller, machine gun-equipped vessel. It was much faster, able to travel at up to about 40 knots and perform hairpin turns. At one point, the smaller craft turned on its blue lights and sirens and pulled up alongside the larger Coast Guard boat carrying the rest of Hoyer's retinue in a demonstration of how the crew would intercept ne'er-do-wells violating the secure space around the LNG terminal.
"Be advised you are trespassing on United States government property," a crew member of the small ship announced over the boat's public address system. Then the vessel sped away to Solomons.