Columbia Gas Transmission said Monday that it expects to begin work on a 21-mile pipeline through Baltimore and Harford counties next year after winning federal approval for the $180 million project, which drew heated opposition from neighbors.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorized the company to extend an existing line from Owings Mills to Fallston, built largely alongside another line. Columbia Gas said the project would improve safety and reliability because it would provide a backup method for transporting natural gas when the other line needed repairs.
"We find that the project should not significantly affect landowners and the surrounding community," FERC commissioners wrote in their Thursday order.
Some community members strongly disagreed.
More than 100 people showed up to a FERC hearing at Oregon Ridge Lodge last year, and those who spoke opposed the project or parts of the route. Five members of Maryland's congressional delegation told the agency they heard environmental and health concerns from many residents.
And state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, arguing that interstate gas lines are unsafe because federal oversight is insufficient, introduced a raft of bills this year in an effort to give Maryland regulators more power over such infrastructure.
Zirkin, a Democrat, condemned the FERC ruling and vowed to keep pushing for change.
"It's a sad thing, but not — unfortunately — a surprising outcome," he said. "The oil and gas industry has greased the wheels in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on lobbying and campaign contributions."
The line would bisect Zirkin's Baltimore County district and run near but not on his property. Columbia Gas insisted earlier this year that Zirkin simply wanted to get the line away from his home, which he denied.
Zirkin said he remains hopeful that the state will "put up roadblocks" to keep the project from moving forward. The pipeline requires a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment as well as one from the Army Corps of Engineers, Columbia Gas said.
Residents who sent comments to FERC raised concerns ranging from lost property and felled trees to explosions. A Columbia Gas line explosion in Massachusetts last year flattened a strip club, damaged several dozen buildings and injured nearly 20 people. Another in West Virginia — also last year — destroyed several homes and damaged part of Interstate 77.
Brendan C. Neal, manager of community relations and stakeholder outreach for Columbia Pipeline Group, which includes the transmission firm, said "we've never had an incident" on the Maryland pipeline.
"Our pipeline facility in Maryland has been in service for over four decades now," he said.
Federal records dating to 1970 showed no injuries involving the pipeline itself but 11 gas leaks during the 1970s and 1980s, The Baltimore Sun reported last year.
Mike Tomko, a Fallston resident who was among many in his neighborhood with objections to the project, said his concern wasn't about Columbia Gas specifically but a nearby pipeline in general.
"With gas lines, there's never a problem until there's a problem," said Tomko, whose four sons sleep on the side of the house that's closest to the originally proposed route.
Columbia Gas' current plans would not send the pipeline through his neighborhood, he said. But he feels for the people who would be close to it and for those raising other objections.
"There are some very legitimate concerns that were brought up, in Baltimore County especially, on some of the environmental impact that the federal government doesn't seem too concerned about," Tomko said.
The line's route includes Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville. But Neal said the company agreed to reroute the pipeline around Gunpowder Falls State Park after the state Department of Natural Resources requested it, delaying the project by a year.
"We feel we've done a very good job with regards to protecting the environment and minimizing any impacts to it," he said.
Neal said Columbia Gas has two pipelines running from the state line in Montgomery County to Owings Mills but just one through the rest of Baltimore County and into Harford. The company wants to extend the other line not to expand the amount of gas it can move but to have a backup when needed, he said.
FERC saw value in that for natural-gas customers. New Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rules "will require more frequent inspection and maintenance of pipelines, thereby increasing the likelihood of service outages on any given single-line pipeline segment," FERC said.
Columbia Gas expects that the new segment would go into service in 2015, probably in the late fall.
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