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Safety concerns
Residents demand hearing on hydrogen pilot project
(Published June 14, 2004)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER
Staff Writer

The nation’s first attempt to wed refueling of hydrogen-powered vehicles with a regular gas station is being met with increasing political opposition in the Northeast Washington neighborhood where the station is nearing completion.

A group of about 50 residents who live near the Benning Road site, adjacent to River Terrace Elementary School, extracted pledges June 10 during a public meeting from their councilman and two of his election challengers that they will join the neighborhood fight to expel the federally funded experiment from their neighborhood.

Most of the meeting’s participants, including organizer George Gurley, expressed support for research into alternative fuel technologies but expressed opposition to what Gurley and others termed "being used as guinea pigs" in the process.

"With all due respect, it’s behind a school – if there’s an explosion, there will be deaths," said A. Bernard Jones, an official with a risk management company who was invited to speak at the meeting.

Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, promised his constituents that the D.C. City Council will schedule a public hearing to scrutinize the government regulatory and safety aspects of the project.

"There is no way I am going to support anything that’s going to be harmful to this community. …The bottom line on all of this is the health, safety and welfare of the residents," Chavous said, adding that some D.C. government officials have failed to respond to his questions about the project.

Chavous was especially critical of officials at the city’s Department of Health and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

The councilman told The Common Denominator June 11 that Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, D-Ward 6, who chairs the committee with oversight of DCRA, has agreed to convene a public roundtable to review the project.

Ward 7 Democrats Chairman Vincent Gray and Statehood Green Party member Michele Tingling-Clemmons, who are seeking to unseat Chavous this fall, also attended the meeting to pledge their support for the neighborhood’s fight.

The fueling station is under construction as part of a partnership between Shell Oil Co. and General Motors Corp. at the former site of a Texaco station at 3355 Benning Road NE, at the edge of the River Terrace neighborhood. Six GM vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are expected to be brought into the Washington area as part of a U.S. Department of Energy project, aimed at developing and promoting hydrogen fuel cell transportation.

River Terrace residents have long protested industrial-related environmental problems in their neighborhood, which they blame for a higher-than-average incidence of cancer and asthma among longtime residents. The federal government recently classified the area’s air to be an "indeterminant health hazard."

Officials for Shell Hydrogen, which is building the station, have made numerous community presentations on the project and maintain that they are exceeding required safety standards.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator