Wooden stakes mark the path that a proposed underground gas pipeline would cut through Jonathan Guth's property in Baltimore County along its 21-mile route northeast to Harford County. The project would take out about half a stand of woods that Guth says makes a fine noise and privacy buffer between his four-bedroom house and the main road, and he's not happy about it.
"If all that wasn't here, we probably wouldn't have bought the house," said Guth, pointing to about an acre of 50-foot-tall trees along Ridge Road that provide accommodations for deer, cardinals, blue jays, foxes and at least one red-tailed hawk Guth has grown rather fond of. He and his wife moved in 2009 to this spot southwest of Oregon Ridge Park from a more densely populated county neighborhood, in part for "all the benefits of the natural environment. Now we're going to lose a lot of that."
Guth is among those opposing or questioning a proposal by Columbia Gas Transmission LLC to put in a new line alongside the one that's been there for about 40 years. For most of the 21-mile stretch from Owings Mills to Fallston, the line would follow the existing right of way, but the swath would be wider — growing from 50 to 75 feet wide in some spots — and that concerns property owners like Guth and his wife.
Fourteen property owners in Baltimore and Harford counties have sent comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which evaluates the environmental impact and necessity of such projects. They're worried about the effect on property values, the possibility of explosions or leaks, higher utiilty bills if shade trees are cut down, the inconvenience of construction, and the possible impact on wildlife and streams.
A Columbia spokesman said the company puts safety first and will comply with all environmental regulations.
State Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, a Democrat who lives near Guth and represents that portion of Baltimore County, says the environmental impact could be more significant than the effect on any one property owner.
"It's scary for me. I'm not trying to be an alarmist," Zirkin said Monday. "I'm distraught about heavy industry plowing its way through treasures in the Green Spring Valley."
He sees the Columbia proposal as part of a "national muscling-up of natural gas companies" as they expand distribution networks for natural gas expected to be produced in hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" operations.
Michael Banas, a spokesman for Columbia, said Monday that the $100 million Owings Mills-to-Fallston project is "not an expansion." The new line is not a "backup" to the existing line but is needed as part of an effort to update and make service more reliable, allowing the company to shut down one line for maintenance when necessary and keep the gas flowing, he said.
He said the Maryland project is part of a $4 billion to $5 billion plan to improve about 1,000 miles of pipeline along the 12,000-mile network that Columbia operates in 10 states. Baras said Federal Energy Regulatory Commission hearings and a comment period are an early part of a process in which Columbia would file a formal application in August, hoping to begin construction in June 2013 and finish in five months.
The commission is accepting public comment through letters and email until May 16, and will hold hearings at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Oregon Ridge Lodge in Cockeyesville and at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Youth's Benefit Elementary Schoool in Fallston.
Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a preservation group, said her organization has not taken a position on the pipeline. She has some questions about how the company will handle cases where the pipeline path cuts through septic systems.
"It really goes through people's front yards, backyards," said Moore.
Banas said land attached to 81 homes is located within 50 feet of the proposed construction route, but no residential buildings are within that range. He said Columbia will try to avoid digging up septic systems, but if it's necessary, the company will work with homeowners to find another spot for the system — at Columbia's expense.
Moore said if this were a new swath being cut through woodlands, she would have more concern about wildlife habitat, but "since this corridor exists already, the damage has already been done."
Pam Bush, a project manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said her agency is "doing a total environmental review" to see how animals and plants would be affected by the project, which cuts through the Sweet Air section of Gunpowder Falls State Park. Specifically, she said, Columbia has complied with a recommendation to study the project's impact on the bog turtle, which Bush said is listed as "threatened" by both the state and federal governments.
Not everyone is waiting for agency reviews to determine the potential impact.
Benjamin Todd of Reisterstown wrote to the FERC to "express my outrage. … This project is an environmental attack, as well as an attack on citizens' property and lives."