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Owings Mills senator, gas company clash over pipeline in Baltimore County

A Baltimore County senator is engaged in a bitter public clash with a giant energy company over its plans to build an underground natural gas pipeline that would run through land alongside his Owings Mills home and through the yards of many of his neighbors.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin has introduced more than a dozen bills in Annapolis that take aim at the gas pipeline industry and its federally granted powers to seek condemnation of private property. Zirkin says he is doing everything he can to protect the environment and the safety of his constituents.

But the target of his wrath, Columbia Gas Transmission LLC, is raising questions about his motives and tactics. An executive of Columbia's parent company has accused Zirkin of putting his private interest as a homeowner ahead of the welfare of his constituents by suggesting alternate routes along nearby streets that would steer clear of his property.

"He made it clear he wanted to get the pipeline away from his house," said Alex Oehler, government relations director at Houston-based Columbia Pipeline Group. "He made it very clear that he would oppose us — vigorously oppose the project — unless we did that."

Zirkin vehemently denies ever making such a suggestion, calling it an "absolute lie," and insisted he doesn't want the pipeline anywhere near his constituents' homes.

"I assume they're trying to get the people mad at me," he said. "I am a lowly state senator, but I will use every legislative means at my disposal to protect my citizens and the citizens around the state who live, work and play near these things."

He acknowledged "poor timing" in sponsoring one bill, which appeared to be directed at the wife of a Columbia Gas lobbyist. Under the measure, she would been ineligible for reappointment to the Baltimore County school board. Zirkin said he was trying to address a legitimate ethical concern but withdrew the bill amid criticism from other county lawmakers.

But his combative stance toward the pipeline itself — a position supported by the three delegates from his district — is praised by some neighbors and constituents.

Rick Scheper, a Falls Road homeowner whose property is on the right of way, believes the barrage of legislation could force Columbia Gas to back down. "If we make it a more expensive process for them, maybe they decide to change their plan," he said.

Dave Raymond, whose Dellwood neighborhood property is in the path of proposed pipeline, describes Zirkin's effort this way: "Someone is stepping up and speaking for us who has a voice."

Zirkin has received assurances from the General Assembly's ethics counsel that his advocacy of pipeline legislation is not a conflict of interest because his proposed legislation affects broad areas of public policy.

One of the main objectives of Zirkin's pipeline package is to assert a vigorous state role in the regulation of the industry's safety practices. He acknowledges that Congress has given primary authority over pipelines to federal agencies — one that approves siting decisions and another that regulates safety. But he contends the federal government has been an ineffective regulator and that there is a role for Maryland's Public Service Commission.

"Because of the way the federal government has structured this, we are left unsafe," he said. "I object to our state not having a say in the protection of its citizens."

The dispute over the proposed 21.3-mile pipeline between Owings Mills and Harford County is part of a broader clash of national and local interests that is playing out all over the country. The central issue is that while consumers want the power that heats their homes and runs their appliances, few want the infrastructure to deliver it located in their backyards. Incidents in which pipelines have leaked or exploded have done little to make them more welcome.

In the case of interstate pipelines, Congress has come down squarely on the side of federal authority. Approval of the project that includes Zirkin's district rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency whose critics consider it a pawn of the power companies. Local and state governments can offer their opinions, but FERC can overrule them.

The project at the center of the dispute is a second pipeline Columbia wants to add along an existing 50-foot right of way — much of it running underneath backyards in residential neighborhoods — where an underground pipeline has quietly delivered natural gas to BGE in Fallston for decades. Oehler says the company needs to expand the existing right of way to 75 feet.

Widening the right of way would require the company to acquire land or easements from property owners along the route — many of whom oppose the project.

According to Columbia, the second pipeline is needed to improve the reliability of service to 40,000 customers along the Baltimore County-Harford County line. The single pipeline along that stretch is safe and has been operating well, Oehler said, but leaves those customers vulnerable to service interruptions.

Columbia Gas Transmission operates a nearly 12,000-mile pipeline network in 10 states, according to its corporate website. It also owns one of North America's largest underground natural gas storage systems, according to the parent company, which has operations across the country.

Zirkin contends the company's explanation is a smoke screen for its true agenda. He argues Columbia wants to add capacity to accommodate the increased volume of gas he believes it will be pumping as a result of the extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." He also argues the proposed route cuts through sensitive wildlife habitats and parkland.

The senator's main line of attack, however, is the issue of safety. He pointed to pipeline disasters, including one in Sissonville, W. Va., in December in which a Columbia pipeline blew up and leveled four houses while damaging Interstate 77.

When he first learned of Columbia's plans, Zirkin said, he was most concerned about the planned new pipeline. As he learned more, he said, his concern has shifted to the safety of existing pipelines that are in many cases decades old.

But Oehler said that in Columbia's meetings with Zirkin early last year, he displayed more concern with the inconvenience of construction near his home than with broader public issues.

According to Oehler, Zirkin asked the company to explore alternate routes that would have taken the pipeline away from his house on Old Manor Court in the Beaverbrook subdivision and routed it alongside his neighbors' and constituents' homes on Ridge Road and Greenspring Avenue.

Describing a meeting at Zirkin's Annapolis office at which the senator allegedly used his finger to trace routes he wanted the company to explore, Oehler said Zirkin offered to drop his opposition if the pipeline was moved from the right-of-way bordering his side yard to nearby residential streets.

Two lobbyists for Columbia Gas, Joel Rozner and Patrick Roddy of the firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, said they attended the meeting and corroborated Oehler's account.

Zirkin says the company and its lobbying firm are trying to smear his reputation.

He said the only route he suggested was one that would have gone up the Interstate 795 corridor, avoiding residential areas. It was rejected by the company as impracticable.

Zirkin's fight took what some senators considered a wrong turn when he introduced a bill that some of his colleagues saw as an unwarranted swipe at Roddy and Roddy's wife. The bill would have prevented the spouse of a registered lobbyist from being appointed to the county school board.

The effort backfired when Valerie Roddy, vice chair of the county board, appeared before the Baltimore County delegation. In testimony first reported by Towson Patch, Valerie Roddy told senators the legislation was "unnecessary, misguided and petty."

"I am disappointed that members of the Senate would use their office to launch a personal attack," she said. Other Baltimore County senators criticized the bill as inappropriate, and Zirkin later withdrew it.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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