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Cove Point Is Too Dangerous

Mickey Shymansky

I'm a firefighter, not an activist or an environmentalist.  I've been a firefighter for 30 years.  I am a captain in the District of Columbia Fire Department, and, until recently, I was the assistant fire chief in charge of operations for the volunteer department that serves my hometown of Lusby, Maryland—the Solomons Volunteer Rescue Squad and Fire Department.  

But I could not keep silent when I learned how dangerous the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal at Lusby’s Cove Point would be, and when I saw how far from seriously its owner, Dominion Resources, is taking fire safety.  Cove Point would be a firefighter's worst nightmare.

At first I thought that transforming Cove Point from an inactive LNG import terminal to a very active export terminal would bring some needed jobs to Calvert County.  But then I went to a meeting that Dominion held for fire department leaders in the region this past January.

When you've fought fires for as many decades as I have, you know fire-safety irresponsibility when you hear it. Dominion proposes to build a 60-foot-tall wall between the terminal and the subdivisions right next to Cove Point.  In public, the company says it would be a "sound wall" to protect the hundreds of neighboring families – including my own – from the deafening noise of the terminal's proposed power and cooling plants.

But at the private meeting, one of the Dominion officials told us that the wall is also intended to function as a firewall that "should" -- in an accident -- direct a leaking natural gas cloud or fireball up sixty feet in the air, high above the subdivisions, allowing people within the one-to-two mile impact zone to safely evacuate.

I was floored.  Natural gas isn't that cooperative.  Where it gathers, it displaces oxygen, so if you aren't wearing protective gear to allow you to breathe, you'll asphyxiate and die.  As it warms, any liquefied gas that escapes will become a cloud, and it could ignite.  If even a fraction of the millions of square feet of the gas (which is mostly methane) that Cove Point will process daily catches fire, the explosive power would be catastrophic.  No wall could contain that.

And even if the wall somehow survives the blast and the burning cloud stays 60 feet above the ground, the fire's heat would radiate downward hot enough to fry hundreds of homes and to ignite flammable sap in trees.  Roads would rapidly be blocked with debris, and the fireball would suck in oxygen, causing evacuating cars to stall and people to asphyxiate.

When I asked the Dominion official, during our January meeting, to justify the company's "firewall" fantasy, he changed the subject.

If this is how Dominion does its safety planning, everyone who works at or lives near the Cove Point terminal is in real trouble. 

Dominion clearly knows that LNG and Cove Point are dangerous, but they are hiding it.  They claim to have provided Solomons FD with specialized training, but that was at least three years ago, and there's nothing on the calendar.  They asked Solomons FD to submit a "wish list" of equipment, but they haven't followed up, not even to discuss it.

The proposed Cove Point terminal is too dangerous.  It is too close to too many homes.  It must be stopped.

But if the powers-that-be continue to smooth the way for its approval, we need far greater emergency response capabilities in Calvert County than we presently have.  Our local firefighters are all volunteers with day jobs.  Oftentimes we can't even fill one fire engine crew.  That may be fine for house fires, but this?

Solomons FD has limited capability with hazardous materials (HAZMAT), and the county sheriff's HAZMAT team has to cover serious mileage to get to a scene.  When a private plane crashed this past winter and leaked fuel, it took 90 minutes for them to arrive. 

So far Dominion refuses to do the responsible thing: to provide its own full-time HAZMAT-capable fire department at Cove Point, on duty 24/7.  Indeed, Cove Point used to have its own fire department – but Dominion canned it to cut costs. 

I'm still a volunteer and I'll go in if I have to, but I could never in good conscience send my courageous but understaffed and under-resourced colleagues into an emergency at the new Cove Point.  Dominion must see that it would be like fighting a dragon with a butter knife, and we would lose.

Mickey Shymansky, a captain in the District of Columbia Fire Department, was Assistant Fire Chief of Operations for the Solomons (MD) Volunteer Rescue Squad and Fire Department from 1991 to 2002 and from 2012 through April.

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