Commission Endorses Removing Substation Testing Mandate

OCEAN CITY — Semi-annual testing on a north-end utlity substation in a residential neighborhood could be going away after resort planners this week narrowly voted to remove the condition of approval in place for years.

As far back as six years ago, Delmarva Power came to Ocean City seeking to expand its substation in the area of Sinepuxent Road between 137th and 138th streets. The substation expansion was approved despite concerns at the time from residents in the community about increased noise and potentially harmful electromagnetic activity emanating from the plant.

Conditions of approval included a sound-proof barrier around the exterior of the roughly block-long property and semi-annual testing by an independent third party to ensure the noise and electromagnetic activity did not exceed acceptable safe standards.

Four years later, the semi-annual testing has been conducted eight times and at no time has the noise and electromagnetic activity come close to approaching the acceptable standards. To that end, Delmarva Power representatives came before the Ocean City Planning Commission on Tuesday seeking to remove the condition, which come with a price tag of roughly $80,000 each time.

“Delmarva Power wants to remove that one condition for the substation at 138th Street,” said attorney Regan Smith, representing the company. “As a condition of the approval for the substation expansion, they have had an electromagnetic specialist conduct semiannual tests for noise and electromagnetic activity for each of the last four years and in each of those eight tests thus far, the substation has been in complete compliance with international standards for noise and electromagnetic activity. … Each of these reports costs around $80,000, which is passed onto the ratepayers. There are 150 of these substations in the vast service area and this is the only one with any kind of test requirements at all. Delmarva Power has an obvious requirement to protect the public and it clearly has in this case. They also have a requirement to protect the ratepayers.”

Smith said Delmarva Power was not seeking to abandon the testing altogether and explained the utility tests the substation internally each month. If any substantive changes were made to the substation, the condition could be restored.

Delmarva Power engineer Roy Collins said the tests are conducted with the substation operating at its highest possible capacity.

“We ramp it up to its full output during the studies which are done at daytime and nighttime,” he said. “We thoroughly check the noise and the electromagnetic fields and in none of the eight studies have we come close to exceeding the standards. Without question, the safety of the public is protected.”

However, the residents and property owners in the area expressed a desire to keep the tests in place in the interest of public safety.

“Why discontinue taking the electromagnetic and noise studies now?” said resident Donna Moulton. “You agreed to these agreements with the city in order to build the substation in a residential neighborhood and now you want to back out of those agreements. If the agreements are rescinded, it will be up to the homeowners to ensure their own safety. It shouldn’t be up to us.”

Moulton said beyond the obvious public safety concerns with issues with property values.

“If this condition is rescinded, I would like a letter from Delmarva Power stating that it is totally safe. At some point, I’ll have to sell my house and a potential buyer would want those assurances.”

Resident Richard Hanson agreed the condition requiring the semi-annual tests should remain in place.

“At no time was it ever brought up that that condition could be removed,” he said. “We were given this as a safeguard and we feel a little betrayed by this. That condition is the only safeguard we have that the noise levels and electromagnetic fields are safe.”

Hanson agreed Delmarva Power should provide area residents with a letter guaranteeing the safety of the substation.

“If the planning commission wants to recommend removing this condition, we should receive a letter that it is safe,” he said. “I just hope the planning commission will find it in their hearts not to remove this. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Resident and former councilman Vince Gisreil said the semi-annual studies are the only guarantees the neighborhood has for safety.

“If conditions are placed on a nightclub or a go-kart track or a mini-golf course for noise and lighting etc., you can reprimand them or even shut them down,” he said. “Who is going to shut down a power plant?”

Gisriel said the residents had already conceded to having the substation in their neighborhood and the tests were the only safeguard.

“The community lost this battle years ago,” he said. “As a concession, we got this testing for our collective peace of mind. It is a reasonable condition placed on this approval and it should be retained.”

Gisriel said it was a little disingenuous of Delmarva Power to assert the $80,000 spent on the tests created hardship for the utility giant considering the peace of mind it provides to the area residents.

“That $80,000 is spread out over all of those ratepayers in a vast service area that covers three states,” he said. “That’s a small price to pay for our safety and welfare.”

Resident Irene Hanson agreed with the idea of a letter from Delmarva Power.

“I want that letter so I have a firm document saying this is safe,” she said. “If it was your home, or your mother’s home or your family, you’d feel the same way.”

Collins explained the substation is tested once a month outside the required independent tests and is monitored remotely 24 hours a day and seven days a week to ensure there are no anomalies with the output. As to the property value issue, Collins said a Delmarva Power staffer would come out to each and every property potentially affected and take readings and assure potential buyers there were no issues.

When the planning commission had an opportunity to weigh in the proposed request, they were clearly divided on the issue.
“I’m very sensitive to the public safety concerns,” said Planning Commissioner Chris Shanahan. “I think maybe we could reduce it to one test each year. As is has been said over and over, we all pay for it anyway and that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.”

Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor said the eight tests that had been taken and submitted over the last four years had gone a long way to proving the safety of the substation.

“Part of the reason for this condition was the fear factor,” she said. “This condition was put on the approval to monitor it and make sure it was safe. We’ve monitored it for some time now and there is a proven track record.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis agreed the eight tests taken over the last four years has proven the safety of the north-end substation.

“Delmarva Power has served its sentence and proven their case,” he said. “If they are testing it once a month and monitoring it internally, it seems the public safety standard has been met.”

A motion was made to recommend removing the condition requiring the semi-annual testing. That motion was approved by a narrow 3-2 vote with Gillis, Taylor and Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson in favor and Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley and Shanahan opposed. It’s important to note the planning commission voted to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council, which will make the ultimate decision.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.