Chesapeake PSR

Cove Point poses intolerable safety and health risks

Climate Change and EnergyLydia SullivanComment

by Gwen DuBois, MD, MPH and Lili Sheeline

Concerned about the possibility of a disaster in a facility located in a town of over 20,000, in August, 84 organizations sent a letter to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan requesting that a Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) be made of the Dominion Cove Point (DCP) gas liquefaction and export facility currently under construction in Lusby, Md. Federal law permits state input into liquefied natural gas (LNG) licensing determinations to ensure health and safety protection of residents. This facility is scheduled to open in 2017.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which sets building safety guidelines, dictates that LNG facilities not pose “intolerable risks to the surrounding populations…” and that risks “shall be evaluated… using QRA protocol.” It also has developed guidelines specifically to increase safety at sites being converted from LNG import to export, like DCP, exactly because the threat of catastrophic accidents is real.

Yet despite being situated in Calvert County’s most populated town of over 20,000 people and served by a volunteer fire department, no formal risk assessment has ever been conducted of this export facility. Public safety and health are of particular concern given that a 2006 Maryland study found the old import facility (that the new facility will replace) posed societal risks approaching “intolerable” under certain conditions.

Located across the street from residences, the new plant will add to its existing capacity of 110 million gallons of LNG: 410,000 gallons of propane, 68,000 gallons of ethane and over one hundred thousand gallons of other toxic materials. Piped-in gas would be stripped of dangerous impurities including mercury and converted to liquid methane at temperatures of minus 260 F with a refrigerant mix of propane and ethane. Many new mechanical components could result in higher probabilities of failure, including 23 compressors, 121 pumps, 38 heat exchangers, more than 10,000 valves, and 74 miles of pipeline.

When liquefied gas leaks into the environment, it forms a highly flammable vapor cloud that can asphyxiate or, if ignited, create a flash fire or explosion. The result can be serious burns, traumatic injuries and death.

A 2004 explosion at an LNG export facility in Skikda, Algeria killed 30 workers and blew windows out of homes six miles away. In 2014, in the agricultural town of Plymouth, Wash. (population 352), and a small LNG explosion injured five workers and forced a two-mile evacuation.

In both cases, one malfunction led to another, creating a series of cascading events. Given Dominion’s massive infrastructure within a tight footprint, a similar domino effect is a real possibility. The 2006 study indicated that one storage tank failure could cause a flash fire 0.8 miles in radius, enveloping 360 homes. If, as in Plymouth, a DCP accident required a two-mile evacuation, the people in 2,365 homes, two schools, many daycare centers, churches and a commercial town center would have to be moved – quickly.

More than 20 tons of hazardous and toxic pollution also will be added annually to Lusby’s air. Some, like benzene and formaldehyde, can cause cancer from long-term exposures; for many, large acute exposures can cause severe injury and even death. Ammonia can burn skin, eyes, throat and lungs. Hydrogen sulfide can cause loss of consciousness, coma, respiratory paralysis and, if the victim survives, fluid in lungs. Hexane exposure can cause paralysis of arms and legs. These are just some of the potential impacts of a chemical disaster at Cove Point.

People already are concerned about serious health problems from air pollution related to the LNG terminal and associated traffic: lung cancer, heart attacks and cardiovascular mortality from particulate matter; new onset asthma in children and premature respiratory death in adults from ozone pollution. Calvert County’s ozone levels already exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.  

This facility will emit annually more than three million tons of greenhouse gases per year, a clear contributor to climate change.

What is most terrifying is that regulators have refused to perform an assessment of risks from catastrophic fires and explosions at the new export terminal.

The deafening silence of Maryland’s elected leadership needs to be broken now. Governor Hogan: These threats are real. Protect your citizens: Order an independent, third-party QRA, and halt construction at Dominion Cove Point until all risks are identified and addressed.

For a footnoted version of this post, click here.

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Gwen DuBois, MD, MPH is president of Chesapeake PSR, and Lili Sheeline is with Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community.