day of reckoning

May 15, 2014


I’m back in front of the courthouse doors with Steve Bruns, Joanna LaFollette and Sweet Dee Frostbutter.//photo by Ann Marie Nau

As penalty for disturbing the peace and blocking safe passage at the courthouse in Frederick on an icy day in March, Steve Bruns, Joanna LaFollette, Sweet Dee Frostbutter and I — aka the Frederick 4 – must perform 24 hours of community service at a nonprofit of our choice and be on our best behavior for a year. (That would be the state’s definition of best behavior.)

Our action was one of several protests opposing Virginia-based Dominion Resources’ expansion plans in Maryland, including a compressor station in Myersville and a fracked-gas liquefaction and export facility at Cove Point in Lusby.

We know who is really disturbing the peace and hindering safe passage through our communities. Not the Frederick 4 or the Cumberland 4 or the Calvert 6.

Just hours after our sentencing, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released its 242-page environmental review for Cove Point. Despite pages of discussion about deflagration (when a vapor cloud “encounters” an ignition source) and fireballs, of fragments flying through the sky “at high velocities” and shock waves, of radiant heat and unconfined ethane and propane clouds, FERC has concluded that all this will be taken care of. Not to worry. 

In addition, FERC apparently agrees with Dominion that fracking has nothing to do with this project. Because Dominion can’t be sure where and how many wells will be drilled, all this fretting about fracking is mere conjecture: “In addition, specific details, including the timing, location, and number of additional production wells that may or may not be drilled, are speculative. As such, impacts associated with the production of natural gas that may be sourced from various locations and methods for export by the Project are not reasonably foreseeable or quantifiable.” 

FERC also says methane’s global warming potential is 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Wrong. That compares the two greenhouse gases over 100 years, an arbitrary time frame, particularly given our climate emergency. Methane’s toll is 84 times worse over 20 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But FERC is not considering this project’s full climate harm from fracking, piping, compressing, spilling, exploding and shipping anyway. (The latest fracked gas pipeline would run through Maryland, just east of Cumberland. The lastest spillage has oil flowing through the streets of Los Angeles.)

Also deemed speculative was the “No Action Alternative,” because FERC has to consider that only if it does the most thorough type of review. FERC has decided this lesser review is sufficient for the Cove Point project.

We get one public hearing to object to this report: Saturday, May 31, 1 – 6 p.m., Patuxent High School, 12485 Southern Connector Boulevard, Lusby.

Last week, the Obama administration released the latest National Climate Assessment, which shows that climate change is happening here and now, not just in far off lands and in the future. Although that has begun as well. More deluges, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and rising seas are upon us. Scientists also released a report showing that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun an inexorable retreat. The cause of all this chaos: our insistence on exhuming and igniting fossil fuels to power our economy. Which was fine (for some) — until we realized it wasn’t.

The Frederick 4’s action was “part of our continuing protest against the accelerating destruction of our environment by the natural gas industry,” said Steve Bruns, one of my co-conspirators. “We protest the silence of our government officials at every level. It’s time that all of them, from the local, state and national levels, spoke out and put a stop to the pollution of our air and water, the ubiquitous fire and explosion hazards, the sinkholes, and the earthquakes, which have all resulted from gas fracturing and transport. … We ask that all parties join us in the fight for clean air, clean water, and safe, renewable energy in Maryland.”

Although FERC repeats this fallacy in its report, fracking is not a bridge fuel. Once the frack pads and wells, pipelines, compressor stations and export facilities are in place, fracked gas will be an endless highway to an environmental, health and climate disaster. The path of extreme energy extraction is part of the business-as-usual strategy. It’s utterly inadequate. 

Before our sentencing, we asked about serving our time with, say, Sierra Club, Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community, HoCo Climate Change or Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). Our CCAN-provided lawyer, John Doud, said not to push it. So be it. Better, perhaps, to work with an unrelated group. We can learn of their struggle. And tell them of ours. I’m thinking recruitment.  

–elisabeth hoffman


[This blog post first appeared on CCAN’s web site.]

While they’re in town this week, Dominion officials and shareholders should stop by Cleveland’s Grdina Park.

That playground marks where three shiny spheres and a giant cylinder once held millions of gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG). They were a technological wonder in 1944, because 600 times more natural gas could be stored when liquefied at minus 260 degrees F.

But on Oct. 20, 1944, a spark ignited gas vapor seeping from one of the tanks, unleashing a fiery explosion. Homes along 61st and 62nd streets burst into flames, trapping residents. The gas flowed into the sewer system, launching manhole covers, bursting pavement, rushing into basements. Numerous blasts and waves of blistering heat shattered windows miles away. Telephone poles smoked and bent, grass caught fire, walls turned red, people’s shoes felt as if they were melting.

Blog05-06-14 (2)The East Ohio Gas Co. disaster left 131 people dead and hundreds injured. It destroyed a square mile of Cleveland’s east side, including 79 homes, two factories, 217 cars, seven trailers and a tractor. Nearly half the victims, including 21 never identified, are buried at Highland Park Cemetery on Chagrin Boulevard, where a monument honors the dead. If children had not been in school, the toll would have been much higher. After the disaster, public utilities started storing natural gas underground, in depleted wells, rather than as potential bombs in aboveground tanks.

This week, on May 7, less than four miles from Grdina Park, Dominion shareholders will consider dazzling CEO compensation packages and lucrative projects, including the proposed Cove Point LNG export plant in the Chesapeake Bay community of Lusby, Maryland. This $3.8 billion facility would liquefy fracked gas, pump it onto tankers and ship it to Asia.

But fears about explosions, thermal blasts, and limited escape routes dominate the debate. This facility, if approved, would once again place LNG tanks and much more next to too many people.

Opponents have raised numerous objections. The facility would ensure more fracking, compressor stations and pipelines. Exports would also raise prices for American consumers and manufacturers. A U.S. Department of Energy report shows that exporting gas harms every sector of the economy save one: the gas industry. And all that fracking, piping, compressing, chilling, shipping and re-gasifying is a climate nightmare.

But the most poignant alarms are from Lusby residents who live nearby. So near, in fact, that 360 homes are within a 4,500-foot radius. A vapor cloud, according to a state report on an earlier expansion, could drift nearly that far and still ignite — with a spark from a car, a lighter, a grill — enveloping all in a flash fire. Which sounds too much like Cleveland 1944. The nearest homes are 850 feet away. Confusion is widespread about a 60-foot-tall, three-quarter-mile-long wall around the site. Dominion calls it a sound barrier; documents suggest it would also serve as a vapor barrier; and company officials recently told residents that flames from an explosion could travel up the wall and, thereby, over the houses.

The unusual design, confined to the footprint of the existing and dormant import facility, means Dominion has to cram into tight quarters a utility-scale power plant, compressors and liquefaction equipment, and storage tanks for gases and toxic chemicals. Even minor accidents could escalate into a catastrophe. And 1,000-foot tankers would frequently lumber out of port with their explosive load.

Dominion insists accidents won’t happen. But residents have read with growing anxiety about the deadly 2004 explosion at an LNG export facility in Algeria, and more recent blasts at gas-processing plants in Washington, Wyoming and at Dominion’s Blue Racer in West Virginia.

In April, the local assistant fire chief resigned over concerns that his all-volunteer department lacks the staff, training and equipment to handle a disaster at the plant.

Despite all the hazards and questions, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is sticking to its lighter-weight environmental review and plans only one public hearing. The Obama administration even wants fast-track approvals for gas export facilities as another hammer in the geopolitical toolbox to use against Russia. Dominion will tell shareholders that Cove Point fits well with this nationwide rush to export gas.

Ideally, we would weigh the long-term effects of fracking and exporting on gas prices, our health, foreign policy, the climate. At the least, though, the explosion in Cleveland nearly 70 years ago teaches that LNG facilities have no place near homes and schools, playgrounds and parks, beaches and fishing docks. If they belong anywhere, and that is not a given, they belong in remote areas, not next to neighborhoods.

–elisabeth hoffman