The Charles County Board of Appeals on Tuesday evening laid out three conditions that Dominion Cove Point LNG must address before it can expect the board’s approval to proceed with the construction of a natural gas compressor station in Bryans Road.
The board wants Dominion to spell out its plans for fighting fires on the 50-acre property as well as in the neighboring community, to seek a review by the Maryland Department of Energy of emissions from the station’s pipelines and exhaust stacks, and to ensure that it will improve the roads leading to the facility.
County staff will work with attorney Tom Meachum, who has been providing legal advice to the board, to prepare drafts of the three conditions, which will be discussed at a public hearing in March.
In December, the Board of Appeals grilled Dominion representatives about apparent gaps in the information provided to the county about the proposed facility, which would pump natural gas along the 88-mile-long Cove Point Pipeline that runs through Charles and Prince George’s Counties to the Cove Point Liquified Natural Gas terminal in Calvert County.
Dominion has asked the appeals board to grant a special exception that would allow it to install the compressor station as part of its $147.3 million Eastern Market Access project, which will meet increased demand from Washington Gas Light Company and Mattawoman Energy.
The appeals board has been hearing the case since last July. The county received more than 100 public comments during the three-week comment window late last year. Public testimony at hearings in December and January was at times punctuated by loud applause or howls of disbelief from attendees that included representatives of environmental groups and construction trade unions.
A key question raised during the public comment period was whether the proposed use of the property by Dominion was in fact permitted by local zoning ordinances.
In late January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a regulatory document called a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the project, which is a prerequisite for undertaking construction of the compressor station at the site.
Much of the discussion during Tuesday’s public hearing, which ran well over three hours, was on the question of whether local ordinances permitted the installation of the compressor station, which consists of two large natural-gas turbines that would produce more than 24,000 horsepower of compression to move gas through the Cove Point line, and whether state and federal laws overrode county prerogatives.
Reading the FERC certificate, board member James Martin said that the agency appeared to be “very careful to say that we should be hands-off.”
“If we’re supposed to be hands off, then why are we even here?” Martin asked.
Board member Sean Johnston repeatedly stressed that the board’s role should be to look at the land use requirements and not focus on the state and federal regulations.
“The question is, did the county commissioners give this board the authority to approve this use?” asked Board of Appeals chair Brendan Moon at one point. “Either they did or they didn’t, and we’ve got to decide that question before we can decide any other questions.”
“I would actually phrase it a different way,” Meachum replied. “I would phrase it, ‘Does the board have the authority to disapprove it regardless of what the commissioners may or may not have given you?’”
Meachum noted that even if county ordinances gave the board explicit permission to override the commissioners’ preferences, federal law would still trump local law. Several courts have ruled against local preemption of applications for natural gas transmission lines as well as cell towers and other public conveniences.
“With my vote, I’m not making a decision on this board to lay down for the feds or anyone,” Johnston responded. “If our local law says ‘do it,’ I’m doing it and if they want to override us, they’re more than welcome to.”
Following summations by Michael Nagy, the attorney representing Dominion, and opposition counsel J. Carroll Holzer, the four currently serving members of the Board of Appeals officially closed the record and convened a public work session to further discuss their concerns and seek a consensus decision.
Moon said one of his main concerns was the risk of fire. While the primary means of fighting a fire in a gas compressor is to shut off the flow of gas, Moon noted that Dominion had testified that this process would take up to five minutes, and in the meantime the burning gas could ignite adjacent trees. Local fire companies would be hard-pressed to fight the resulting fire given the lack of hydrants or sufficient water pressure at the site.
Following December’s public hearing, the board had asked Dominion to conduct model simulations of a fireball, sustained fire, and shockwave damage to the property and adjacent homes resulting from both a small leak and from a “catastrophic failure” of the pipeline. In its response, Dominion only cited federal regulations for pipeline safety, and did not include data on the simulated fires.
Throughout the evening, the board members debated the risk inherent in operating the compressor station.
Johnston noted that there is a certain level of inherent risk in building homes on rural land that lacks urban water service, or building them near other hazards such as the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. Johnston further argued that if the Dominion parcel were used for a livestock farm, the resulting noise and “horrible, putrid smells” might be equally if not more offensive to residents than anything generated by the compressor station.
“Tradeoffs are made in society,” Johnston said. “This seems like a reasonable one.”
Moon countered that the county was being asked to assume a risk that offered no accompanying benefit.
“Where [the gas in the Cove Point pipeline] is going is less important to me, but I do care that it’s not coming to Charles County,” Moon said. “I care that they want to create emissions and risk and fire risk in Charles County when no one in Charles County needs it. I think that is something we’ve got to consider.”
Dominion is installing the compressor station to improve the delivery of natural gas to Washington Gas Light Company and Mattawoman Energy. WGL does serve customers in Charles County. Mattawoman Energy’s proposed power station in Prince George’s County is expected to serve customers in Southern Maryland, though the Maryland Independent has been unable to ascertain whether its service territory will include Charles County.
“I don’t think we have a preponderance of the evidence that says that this is necessary for the public convenience and service, and I’m defining that as Charles County,” Moon concluded. “I don’t think Charles County needs this, and I don’t think that a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that [it does].”
Moon’s comments drew applause and cheers from the audience.
With the board members appearing to be split 2-2 on whether to approve the application, Moon directed county planner Yolanda Hipski to work with Meachum to draft the three conditions that Dominion would need to satisfy before gaining the board’s approval to build the compressor station as planned.
Reached for comment about the board’s decision, Dominion spokesperson Karl R. Neddenien responded, “We will not speculate on an upcoming board decision. It is not at all unusual to receive a permit approval with conditions.”
The board will resume the discussion about Dominion’s application at its March 13 public hearing.