Advocates for Oregon Ridge Park warn construction of a gas pipeline planned to cut through Baltimore County's largest park will destroy acres of forest and could disrupt wildlife and pollute a popular swimming lake.
"Essentially, we're losing a part of the park," said Jim Curtis of the Oregon Ridge Nature Center Council, as he hiked recently through the park that is home to oak, beech, hickory and other types of trees.
Construction is set to begin in April on the 21-mile Columbia Gas Transmission pipeline through Baltimore and Harford counties, a project the company says is needed to modernize the delivery of natural gas. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave approval to the $180 million project last month.
Curtis said the Nature Center Council is considering taking its concerns to other state and federal regulators, as the project still needs to qualify for waterway and wetlands permits. It hopes to persuade regulators and Columbia Gas that extra precautions must be taken to protect the environment in the park during construction.
Oregon Ridge is owned by Baltimore County. The council works independent of the county to raise money and promote the park, which encompasses 1,043 acres and includes miles of hiking trails. The park hosts a number of annual events, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Fourth of July celebration.
Columbia Gas plans to extend an existing line from Owings Mills to Fallston, and the new pipeline will run mostly parallel to the existing one that lies underneath the middle of the park. The company says the project would improve service reliability for customers in Central Maryland and surrounding regions by providing a backup, while some residents raised environmental, health and safety concerns.
The park's advocates contend that their concerns have been ignored by the gas company and county officials, and say the county could have taken a more aggressive stance during negotiations. Columbia Gas rerouted the pipeline around Gunpowder Falls State Park after a request from the state Department of Natural Resources.
County officials say they are working with the company to minimize damage to the park. Columbia Gas has agreed to spend $150,000 on the park to compensate the county, though no one has determined yet how the money will be spent, a county spokeswoman said.
In Baltimore, a similar flap occurred when supporters of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park learned this year of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s plan to cut a swath up to 2 miles long as part of a project to replace an aging pipeline. City officials have said they are working with the utility company to see whether alternative routes could minimize or eliminate the need to cut down trees there.
It is unclear how many wooded acres would be cleared to create a path for the new pipeline in Oregon Ridge. The council says its review of the company's plan shows more than 10 acres of forest could be destroyed. County officials believe only about 4 acres will be cleared, and a spokesman for the gas company said exact site plans are not finalized.
Columbia Pipeline Group spokesman Brendan Neal said the company plans to plant trees to replace those that are cut down for construction. For safety reasons, no trees can be replanted directly on top of the pipeline, he said, so trees in areas that are permanently cleared will be planted elsewhere.
"Any tree that comes down has a corresponding tree that will be planted, no matter what," Neal said.
But the Nature Center Council, which has about 400 members, says reforestation is not the same as maintaining a mature forest. "You're replacing 100-foot oak trees with 1-foot saplings," Curtis said.
Council members also worry pipeline construction will threaten yellow-spotted salamanders and brook trout populations in park streams, and that runoff from the project could pollute the swimming lake and lead to its closure.
On his recent hike, Curtis pointed to a marshy area in the middle of the park that could be disturbed. He takes children to the spot during nature walks, he said, and they love to watch him scoop tadpoles with a net.
"They get a real thrill out of that," he said.
About 4,000 hikers visit Oregon Ridge monthly in the summer, said nature center director and naturalist Winny Tan. "This is definitely a well-used park," she said.
The park and nature center offer activities throughout the year. Visitors make evergreen wreaths in winter and attend the Honey Harvest Festival in the fall. The center provides educational displays, including stuffed taxidermy bears, a working beehive and glass cases of copperhead, garter and other types of snakes.
Curtis said the Nature Center Council plans to meet in January to discuss its options, including seeking discussion with Baltimore County officials about the use of compensation it receives from Columbia Gas. Among their goals: to prevent drainage of a marshy area and stop sediment from running into a swimming area.
In a letter to federal regulators this year, Curtis had complained that the pipeline construction would close hiking trails and disrupt park activities with noise and dust — which, in turn, could cut into revenue for the Nature Center, which charges visitors for some activities, such as its popular summer camp programs.
Company spokesman Neal said Columbia will do its best to minimize disruption to Oregon Ridge, but will need to create a work staging area during construction that's big enough to ensure safety for workers and separate it from park visitors.
"We understand that this is an important environmental resource for the community, but we also are not going to compromise the safety" of the site, Neal said. "It's a construction site, so the last thing you want do is encourage people to walk through a construction site."
Federal regulators reviewed numerous proposed alternative routes, and determined that the one they approved would have the least impact on the environment and communities, Neal added.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, an opponent of the pipeline, said taking the pipeline through the park is one example of the project's downsides. Oregon Ridge is just outside his district.
"They will literally destroy everything in their path," the Pikesville Democrat said of Columbia Gas. "Should we really permit them to just trample through Oregon Ridge Park, one of the most beautiful treasures in the state, just because they feel like it?"
The line would run near, but not on, Zirkin's own property, and he has sparred with company officials who accused the lawmaker of simply wanting to get the line away from his home. He denied that claim.
Zirkin said he's concerned about environmental and safety issues associated with natural gas lines, pointing to a pipeline explosion in Sissonville, W.Va. last year that destroyed four homes. "It's more than just the inconvenience," he said.
Columbia Gas' existing pipeline in Maryland has had an "exemplary safety record" for decades, Neal said.
Vince Gardina, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, said the county does not believe the pipeline project will have a significant environmental impact on Oregon Ridge.
"We prefer not to lose any trees, but this is fairly minimal," Gardina said.
The county doesn't have authority over the project, he added.
"They have a right of way that goes through county property," Gardina said of the gas company. "That right of way, it's federally controlled."
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.