POTOMAC – With the denial of a land easement for the proposed pipeline spanning the Maryland Panhandle, environmentalists say the project, if eventually constructed, could have significant impacts on the state’s environment and water supply.
Known as the Eastern Handle Expansion, the proposed project would connect the Columbia Gas Transmission Pipeline in Pennsylvania to the Mountaineer Gas line in West Virginia and go under the Potomac River in Hancock, Maryland.
On Jan. 2, the three-person Maryland Board of Public Works, consisting of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D), unanimously voted to deny TransCanada, the owner of the proposed pipeline, a land easement for the project.
“There was a lot of concern about fracked gas being piped from Pennsylvania to West Virginia,” said Brent Walls, an Upper Potomac River keeper for the Potomac River Keeper Network.
Walls added that the pipeline represented “old technology” and that Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia should make efforts to move toward renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar.
Along with the Potomac RiverKeeper Network, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network also opposed the pipeline, with Maryland Policy Director Booke Harper adding that the mere construction of the pipeline would create environmental impacts.
Harper explained that construction of the pipeline would use horizontal directional drilling, which could create risks for the local sedimentation and regional geology.
Also known as “directional boring,” horizontal directional drilling involves sending a long drill bit into the ground under a road or river – creating a subterrain tunnel for a pipeline to be installed. The process is an alternative to trenching.
Harper added that the process risks blowouts when fluid escapes the drilling hole, uncontrollably causing potential contamination.
Walls explained that blowouts in the process could inject massive amounts of slick water and slick mud into the Potomac River, threatening the drinking water supply of residents in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
Since the area of the proposed pipeline is located on Karst geology – subterrain land formations with sinkholes and caves – both Walls and Harper explained that potential spills or leaks would immediately impact the natural ground formation as well as the surrounding river ecology.
“Because of the heavy rains this season, when they started construction [on a separate pipeline in West Virginia] … we saw all of the erosion and sedimentation barriers fail due to the heavy rains,” Harper said. “Pipelines companies often avoid Karst geology whenever possible.”
Following the denial of the easement, Walls said TransCanada has three options. They would be to abandon the project, file legal action or reroute the pipeline.
While rerouting, Walls explained, would involve “a whole lot of logistics,” as well as permit and application filing efforts, he said the Potomac RiverKeeper Network would “hold strong” with the state to ensure the project does not go forward or would step in on behalf of the state, if necessary.
Harper said her organization would work to introduce the “Pipeline and Water Protection Act,” a bill preventing the state from waiving environmental impact studies regarding pipeline projects.
Del. David Moon (D-District 20), who led the effort to oppose the easement decision on the project with a letter to the Board of Public Works, added that any approval of the project would defy the state’s fracking ban.
“The state as a whole has a commitment to moving towards a renewable energy policy and away from fracked gas,” he said.