The Prince George's County Planning Board voted unanimously yesterday to reject a proposal by Washington Gas to store liquefied natural gas at a plant in Chillum near houses, apartment buildings and a Metro station.
Planning Board Chairman Elizabeth M. Hewlett said the utility's request to use the 21-acre site it owns near the District border to store 12 million gallons of liquid gas clashes with county plans for high-density, pedestrian-oriented development around its Metro stations.
The issue now heads to the zoning hearing examiner.
Midgett S. Parker Jr., an attorney for the utility, which serves nearly 1 million customers in the Washington region, questioned yesterday whether the Planning Board had authority in the case.
Parker said jurisdiction over the issue lies with the state Public Service Commission, not a local zoning authority.
"The Maryland Public Service Commission is better equipped to handle siting, safety, structure, operation and all other elements of LNG [liquid natural gas] storage," Parker said.
This year, Prince George's lawmakers sponsored legislation that would have barred Washington Gas from moving forward with its plans by prohibiting companies from storing liquefied natural gas in highly populated areas.
Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's) withdrew the bill after consulting with the state attorney general's office. She was advised that the authority rested with the county's Planning Board and council.
On Wednesday, Washington Gas tried to block the Planning Board from holding the hearing on the proposal. But the petition was denied in Prince George's Circuit Court.
Company officials said they are not giving up.
"We will continue to seek the recognition to use the site as a gas storage facility as it is permitted to be used," said Tim Sargeant, a spokesman for Washington Gas. Sargeant said the utility has not determined in what venue it will wage its fight.
Nearly 50 residents who live in Chillum and Avondale, in unincorporated sections of the Hyattsville area, turned out to oppose the project, which would create the first such facility in the area. Several said they worry about how safe it would be in such a densely populated area.
Liquefied natural gas is not flammable as long as it remains in liquid form, but a government-commissioned study found that terrorist attacks on tankers carrying it could trigger a massive fire.
Shirley Renrick, who lives a block away from the site, complained that residents smell fumes coming from the facility, which stored vaporized natural gas until the late 1990s.
"There is no reason to believe that Washington Gas can better manage the new technology of liquid natural gas," Renrick said.
Residents say they have became more leery of Washington Gas's proposal after a house in District Heights exploded in March. Before the blast, residents had complained about gas odors.
Washington Gas officials say the facility's conversion is critical to the utility's ability to meet the region's growing demand for natural gas. Sargeant said the company, which has plans to build a new plant by 2008, would provide 24-hour surveillance and such safety features as gas detectors, automatic shutdowns and double-layer containers.