The Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project pipeline would, if built, run from Fulton county, PA, to Jefferson County, WV.  The middle portion of the pipeline from Berkeley Springs, WV, to Martinsburg, WV, is almost complete. The portion of the pipeline through the state of Maryland, however, is still in the approval stage—construction has not begun. The terminus of the pipeline in Jefferson county, WV, would be the highly controversial, highly polluting insulation factory run by the Danish multinational, Rockwool. Eastern Panhandle Protectors opposes this proposed coal- and fracked-gas-fueled facility and the pipeline that would provide the gas.

The Maryland part of the proposed pipeline was dealt a blow on January 2 by the Board of Public Works (BPW). That day, the board voted unanimously to reject an easement for the Columbia Gas company to go under the Western Maryland Rail Trail in Hancock, MD.

The members of the Board of Public Works are the governor, Larry Hogan; the state comptroller, Peter Franchot; and the state treasurer, Nancy Kopp.

Leading up to the vote, the board had heard testimony from our group and the Columbia Gas attorney on the easement issue at its December 19  meeting.  The item had just been added to the agenda on Monday of that week, prior to the Wednesday meeting. The director of the Maryland Sierra Club chapter managed to learn about the upcoming vote, and informed other regional environmental advocates, including Eastern Panhandle Protectors, Potomac Riverkeepers, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Six of us made it to Annapolis and gave testimony against the pipeline easement. That day, the board decided to delay voting on the issue.

Following this delay, we expected the board to put the easement vote back on the agenda in perhaps a month or so. However, the issue was once again scheduled to be voted on, with little notice, immediately after New Year’s Day. In spite of the holiday and the lack of notice, our groups found out that the pipeline was on the agenda.

With only one business day before the vote, the Maryland Sierra Club and Delegate David Moon got 63 Maryland legislators to sign a letter opposing the pipeline easement, and presented it to the board.

Our groups organized about 40 citizens to attend the meeting, including members of Jefferson County Vision, the group fighting the proposed Rockwool plant. We carpooled to Annapolis from the Eastern Panhandle and western Maryland. Most of us were prepared to give testimony to the board. Dozens had already emailed the members of the BPW, making their objections to the pipeline project known.

A Whole New Line

As fate would have it, none of us got a chance to deliver our prepared testimony. As we were being let into the meeting room by security, the vote was already taking place. We could scarcely believe what we heard. Comptroller Franchot asked the crowd, “Everyone understand what we just did?” Applause then broke out in the room.

Franchot stated: “There was compelling testimony (at the previous meeting) of people who came down and said they don’t think this is the right thing for the state of Maryland to do. We would subject our state to all the environmental problems of the pipeline and get none of the economic benefits.”

Since the vote, many of those who have a financial stake in getting the pipeline project pushed through have attempted to play down the decision’s significance to the future of the pipeline project and the proposed Rockwool factory. Michael Zarin, spokesman for Rockwool, said on WV Metro News: “We remain confident that Mountaineer Gas will be able to meet our needs when the facility is up and running.”

Mountaineer is the company building the West Virginia part of the pipeline, including the extension slated to serve the highly contested factory and other potential industry in Jefferson County. In The Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, MD), Jefferson County Development Authority Executive Director Nic Diehl said he believes the extension of natural gas service to the Rockwool plant by Mountaineer will not be derailed by Maryland’s action.

Diehl also stated in the Spirit of Jefferson: “They [Mountaineer Gas] already promised Rockwool natural gas based on their calculations about existing capacity. That was done over a year ago.” This statement would appear to deny the fact that Rockwool and other heavy industry even need the gas from the pipeline, whose supply would come by way of Maryland, where the pipeline easement has been rejected.

The public document, Case No. 15-1256-G-390P, Petition to Reopen to Amend Infrastructure Replacement and Expansion Program, dated 3/31/16, is available on the Public Service Commission website. This document was filed by Mountaineer Gas to the Public Service Commission so they could build the pipeline between Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs that is now almost complete (pages 170-173).

This document discusses the limited capacity of the Washington Gas Light pipeline from Clearbrook, VA, to Martinsburg, the only pipeline that existed in the area over a year ago. It is clear from this public filing that, at that time, there was no capacity for a factory like Rockwool, which would use 1.61 million cubic feet per day. They were already straining to provide gas to Proctor and Gamble, which has recently come to Martinsburg.

Page 171 of the filing reads, “In addition to the restrictions on the Washington Gas Light system, Mountaineer’s current distribution trunk line is 6″ and currently running at its Maximum Allowable Operating Pressure. Therefore, in order to flow more gas from the current WGL system, Mountaineer would have to upgrade its existing trunk line”

This means the gas company would have to build a whole new line from Clearbrook to deliver the needed gas.

Map of the Western Maryland Rail Trail.

In 2017, the then-JCDA president claimed repeatedly that the pipeline was essential to the growth of new industry in Jefferson County. In a Martinsburg Journal op-ed called “Gas Pipeline: Build it Now,” he said:

“In 2013, through a collective effort of local stakeholders led by the JCDA, a feasibility study [the Thrasher Study] funded by the Jefferson County Commission was initiated to determine what it would take to finally bring natural gas into Jefferson County. The results of this initial study indicated that the lack of natural gas in Jefferson County was an impediment to business development and that, for the first time ever, natural gas service to Jefferson County appeared to be economically possible. By this time, the current natural gas system in the Martinsburg area was coincidentally near full capacity.”

Additional Hurdle

The Development Authority and the gas company can’t have it both ways. If they claimed in 2016 and 2017 that the new line between Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, with a gas source in Pennsylvania, was absolutely necessary to supply new industry in Jefferson County, how can they now claim that the Maryland connection is not really needed by the industry they brought here, namely Rockwool? The only thing that has changed between now and then is the Board of Public Works rejecting the pipeline right-of-way going through Maryland.

In a recent statement in the Journal, Scott Castleman, spokesman for Columbia Gas, affirmed industry’s need for fracked gas: “Today’s vote … does not change the need for, or the company’s commitment to, our Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project.

“… It remains critical for West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and the surrounding region, and will provide much-needed additional natural gas supplies for continued business and economic development.”

The Maryland vote is likely to be disputed by Columbia Gas in the courts or at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. However, if it sticks, the path to delivering fracked gas to heavy industry in West Virginia would be a rough one.

The Western Maryland Rail Trail, which lies in the current pipeline path, is 22 miles long, stretching from Big Pool to Pearre, MD. To avoid the Rail Trail, Columbia would have to seek a route through a much wider section of Maryland. The current planned route through the Hancock area goes through the narrowest part of the state, a mere 3.5 miles. A new route would also need to be re-certified by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Another potential hurdle to re-routing the pipeline would be new legislation being proposed in Maryland this year. The Pipeline and Water Protection Bill would “… require the Maryland Department of Environment to carry out a comprehensive environmental review of all new fracked-gas pipelines proposed in the state. Last year, The Hogan Administration refused to carry out a full review under section 401 of the Clean Water Act for the pipeline, deferring instead to the Army Corps of Engineer’s blanket permit.”

All this adds up to a victory for those of us who have fought the pipeline for more than two years now. It’s a serious setback to those wanting to deliver and use fracked gas in our area. Let’s hope the decision is not overturned by the courts or the federal government.

— ARTICLE BY: Tracy Cannon


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