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Opponents of gas pipeline project dominate lengthy Hancock public hearing


The Morgan Messenger

HANCOCK, W.Va. — At least 300 people attended a public hearing held at Hancock Middle-Senior High School by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) about permits for natural gas company TransCanada/Columbia Gas Transmission to build a 3-mile natural gas connector west of Hancock. The line would cross I-68 and several local roads and be pulled under the Potomac River to the West Virginia shore.

The December 19 hearing sought comments on a State Nontidal Wetlands and Waterways Permit that would allow TransCanada contractors to  build a natural gas pipeline across wetlands and through designated floodplain areas west of Hancock.

The proposed project would permanently impact 127 linear feet (923 square feet) of streams and temporarily disturb other stream areas. Floodplain areas would also be disturbed by the building of a pipeline, including 14,885 square feet of regulated floodplain, 2,642 square feet of emergent nontidal wetland, and 8,829 square feet of wetland buffer, the MDE application states.

Some of the areas will be disturbed for new construction entrances for heavy equipment, temporary and permanent access roads and construction staging areas.

Site plans, with road and stream crossings, were on display in the hallways of the school. TransCanada and MDE officials were on hand to answer questions about the plans. Despite the large display of local construction plans, the bulk of the MDE hearing focused elsewhere — on the impacts of a pipeline crossing beneath the Potomac.

Over the course of three hours, 53 speakers stood to give comments and testimony to MDE officials about the pipeline. The eight-in\There were so many speakers signed up to give testimony that 25 people hadn’t had a chance to speak before the auditorium had to be closed at 10 p.m., three hours into the hearing.

Denise Keehner, administrator of Wetlands and Waterways, said the agency would hold a second public hearing on January 18 at MDE offices in Baltimore to field more public comments.

Elected officials were offered the first chance to comment. No Hancock or county officials spoke. Boonsboro Councilwoman Brigitte Schmidt presented a letter the Boonsboro, Md. council has adopted, asking MDE to deny a 401 Water Quality Certification for the project.

“Maryland will not benefit from the pipeline in any way,” she said. Schmidt pointed to “inherent public health and environmental risks” from any failure of the gas line under the Potomac. The river supplies drinking water to the town’s residents and businesses.

West Virginia State Senator Charles Trump (R-Morgan) said the TransCanada section of the natural gas pipeline would bring a needed utility to Morgan County, just across the Potomac River, and to companies in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

“West Virginia needs the help of our friends and neighbors in Maryland,” Trump said. He noted that Morgan County doesn’t have natural gas, and that utility is needed for economic development.

“This critical infrastructure will mean great things for West Virginia,” Trump said.

Delegate Daryl Cowles (R-Morgan), Morgan County’s economic development director, said there are “a lot of supporters” for the gas project – known as the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project – across multiple states.

“This is a $20 million infrastructure project that can be accomplished with safety and good environmental practices,” Cowles said. He said natural gas has been sought in Morgan County for decades.

The vast majority of the speakers objected to the Waterways permit largely on the grounds that the 3-mile pipeline threatens the safety and health of the Potomac River and those who draw their water from it. Protestors held signs throughout the hearing, and booed those in favor of the project.

Many speakers said Maryland will not benefit from the natural gas project that is meant to feed a proposed 23-mile line from Berkeley Springs to Martinsburg.

Speakers repeatedly pointed out that 6 million people downstream of Hancock draw their drinking water from the Potomac River. Dozens said the risk of contaminating or polluting the river during construction or operation of the pipeline was too significant for the MDE to ignore.

Maryland residents from Baltimore to Garrett County stood to object to state permits for the project.

Opponents said Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision this year to ban the practice of gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Maryland set the policy of turning away from “fracked gas.”

“We’ve learned from West Virginia’s mistakes – that’s why we banned fracking,” said Brooke Harper of Chesapeake Climate Action. She asked the MDE to use their “full power and scope of authority to protect our communities.”

Richard Kidwell of Lanham said the existing gas line from Winchester, Va. to Martinsburg, W.Va. is 50 years old and should be replaced and expanded to add capacity for West Virginia. That would eliminate the need for gas to come under the Potomac from northern sources.

Ross Cook, one of the few local speakers, has a historic home located west of Hancock on Locher and Berm Roads, right where the pipeline would be built.

Cook said his 170-year-old house gets water from wells that are “absolutely pure.”

“Everyone wants to stop the pipeline. I’m worried it’s going to happen anyway,” he said. Cook fears the pipeline project will contaminate his wells, and he will be forced to prove the gas company is to blame.

“I’d like to see something that says TransCanada has the burden to show they didn’t do it,” Cook said.

Former Washington County commissioner Linda Craig said her family has lived in the county since 1645 and has an interest in protecting the waterways. Craig said TransCanada doesn’t have a good track record and the risks to the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay are too great.

Others pointed to TransCanada pipeline accidents and spills as evidence that lines are risky.

At least a dozen speakers asked MDE officials to consider the environmental impact of the entire gas line expansion project, not just the 3-mile portion in Maryland.

Karst geology in the region was another major talking point for speakers. Porous rock formations underground allow water to move in many directions, said West Virginia and Maryland residents. Opponents have said this geology makes pipeline construction especially risky, and would make an underground natural gas leak harder to contain.

Mike Tabor, a Fulton County farmer, said everyone depends on clean water. Tabor acknowledged his “union brothers” at the hearing who depend on construction jobs associated with pipelines.

“There’s one thing that trumps jobs – it’s clean water,” he said.

Another speaker, Len Shindel of Baltimore County, said he owns a vacation home in Garrett County, where he uses the C&O Canal frequently. He spoke against the pipeline, but said he “hears the call” for jobs from fellow union members. “I hear even louder the call of a clean energy future,” Shindel said.

Jeremey Kennel of the Labor Local 616 of Cumberland said he supports the Eastern Panhandle Expansion project for its economic growth potential for Washington County and the area. A second union member from Morgantown, W.Va. said young workers are trained to build pipelines safely.

“Nobody wants dirty drinking water and everybody wants safety,” he said. “We want to be safe but we’re for this project.”

One of the last speakers of the evening said it’s widely accepted that burning fossil fuel is to blame for escalating climate change, and the MDE should act on that knowledge and reject TransCanada’s permit.

“Why are we still having this conversation?” she asked.

Comment period still open

The public can send in written statements about the permit application through the end of business on January 16, 2018. The application can be viewed on the MDE Wetlands and Waterways website under Public Information.

Written comments should be sent to: Water and Science Administration, Wetlands and Waterways Program, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, Md. 21230. Include the case number on all letters (201760592/17-NT-3089).

Anyone with questions about the hearing, the project or the review process can contact Paul Busam at [email protected] or 410-537-3213.

Citizens can also asked to be added to the “interested persons list” to receive notices from the MDE about actions in the case.

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