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Trumbull residents seek Siting Council changes from a planned fuel-cell facility

HARTFORD — Dozens of Trumbull residents on Thursday asked state lawmakers to protect the historic Nichols neighborhood from a planned fuel-cell facility that would depend on high-pressure natural gas flowing through 50-year-old pipes.

Wearing “Fragile Handle With Care” lapel stickers, they told the Energy & Technology Committee that state regulators should have to consider public safety issues when reviewing applications.

The residents waited more than three hours to testify late into the afternoon during the hearing, where they asked for more oversight and voiced concerns about the potential for an explosion similar to the February blast that killed six construction workers in Middletown.

Richard Moore, whose 6-acre Moorefield Herb Farm would be directly across Huntington Turnpike from the facility planned by the Danbury-based FuelCell Energy Inc., said that it would be the first of its kind in the United States, but nearly 50 percent larger than the only other generator, which is located in Toronto.

“It’s a swampy area,” Moore said, noting that the cast-iron gas pipe was buried in nearby wetlands more than 50 years ago.

“The company claims that fuel cells are non-combustion, therefore they’re safer, yet the chemical reaction that happens inside the fuel cells is approximately 1,250 degrees,” Moore said. “The combustion point of natural gas is 1,100 degrees, so if there were ever a leak at this site there’s more than adequate heat to ignite a natural gas leak.” Lawmakers and neighbors complained that FuelCell Energy Inc. sent nondescript, registered letters in early February that did not pinpoint the exact location of the site of the hybrid turbo-expander energy system.

A request for comment Thursday was not returned by FuelCell Energy officials.

“This is a beautiful residential neighborhood,” said Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, adding that within a half mile of the site is a high school and two other schools where hundreds of children are educated each day.

He said the case is not a matter of suburbanites protecting their backyards. “There are profound safety concerns for an unknown technology,” Rowe said.

Pending legislation before the committee would expand the Siting Council’s power to reject proposals beyond its current scope of adverse environmental effects and into the realm of public safety; and require public hearings to be held.

Although the company has not yet applied for approval with the state Siting Council, town residents and officials fear excessive carbon emissions and other possible hazards from its 3.4-megawatt gas-fired fuel cell electricity generator.

“Local zoning and land-use boards should have a role, too,” Rowe said.

Sen. Anthony J. Musto, D-Trumbull, criticized current law for not requiring the Siting Council to hold public hearings. “All the people are asking today is to have a voice,” he said.

“This bill is very important to the community I represent,” said Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield.

“We need to require a greater standard for having public hearings, letting residents be heard, allowing those that might object to an application the opportunity to present evidence, to make their case, to build a strong administrative record,” said First Selectman Timothy M. Herbst during an afternoon news conference prior to the public hearing.

He said the issue goes far beyond the Nichols historic district.

“It affects every town and every city in the state,” he said, adding that Trumbull has retained a lawyer to oversee its response to the proposal. Other sites in the town are also being looked at as potential alternatives.

Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy & Technology Committee, was impressed with the tenacity of the group, some of whom included school children getting a taste of the legislative process.

“We are listening to what you have to say,” she told the contingent. “Particularly the public input.”

To see more of the Connecticut Post, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.connpost.com/.

Copyright (c) 2010, Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

March 21, 2010 - 12:06 PM