Harford residents fighting Columbia Gas lawsuits for pipeline project

Columbia Gas Transmission continues to wait for state permission to move forward with its proposed parallel pipeline through the Fallston area, as people living in the area battle legal efforts on the part of the company to take or gain use rights to their properties.

The company has filed suit against dozens of landowners in Baltimore and Harford counties as part of an effort to gain access to their land for the pipeline, which would run from Owings Mills to the Rutledge Compressor Station in Fallston.

The 26-inch line gas line would duplicate an existing pipeline; Columbia Gas Transmission has said the two are needed for increased reliability.

Residents questioned that claim during an earlier challenge to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process, Carolyn Elefant, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for some of the defendants, said Monday.

The project was originally approved by federal regulators in November 2013.

In January, Columbia sued about 30 landowners seeking eminent domain, according to Elefant and online records.

Generally, eminent domain applies to governments seeking control over private property for public projects. Officials with FERC have said the federal agency has ruled that the project is necessary.

"The findings that FERC made as to the pipeline being necessary are something that cannot really be challenged in court," Elefant said. In seeking to block Columbia's efforts, other legal justification would be necessary.

"There may be arguments that Columbia is asking for too much property, that it is taking beyond what it is entitled to," Elefant said.

"I think some parties have also raised concerns [about] whether there was enough negotiation," she said. "The main dispute in all of these is just compensation."

About 76 acres are at issue in the most recent case.

An earlier suit targeted about 110 landowners, Elefant said. She declined to identify the specific landowners involved or where in Harford they might be, but said "the acres are just spread out."

Columbia Gas Transmission settled earlier this month with Manor Conservancy, Inc., according to court records. That case affects 561 acres in Harford County, according to court records.

In the new case filed in January, Columbia is seeking access to affected properties to conduct "horizontal directional drilling."

The company would not necessarily take permanent and full possession of the properties in question, "but the problem in those cases is, it's really outside the scope of the original certificate," Elefant said. The feasibility of doing the drilling is still being evaluated, she said.

"I know Columbia is now doing some additional surveys," she said, adding she believes Columbia was recently asked by FERC to provide more information on the drilling option.

Columbia Gas declined to comment on the project's status except to say it is waiting for permits to be approved. A company spokesman would not say when that is expected to happen.

"As a corporate policy, we don't comment on active litigation matters," Brendan Neal, manager for community relations and stakeholder outreach for Columbia Pipeline Group, said via email Thursday.

"We are waiting for the approval of our final permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment," he said. "We hope that they make their joint decision soon so we can move forward with creating jobs and improving the reliability of gas delivery for Marylanders."

In the eminent domain cases, Elefant said "there are some serious procedural problems with attempting to access the property at this point when these landowners never had the opportunity to make a case in this docket," she said.

"In the other cases, it is still very difficult to tell what is going to happen," she said, noting Columbia already has its FERC permits.

If the pending permits are not granted, the pipeline could not be built, Elefant said.

"One of the things we have argued in the [most recent] case is, until this whole issue of the permit is resolved, we do not know for sure if the pipeline as proposed will actually go through," she said. "We have argued that it should not move ahead at all [until the permits are resolved]."

The project concept was first put before residents in 2012, with those in the Fallston area immediately expressing concern about their property rights.

The company said the second pipeline is designed to reduce system vulnerability to outages and facilitate pipeline safety inspections without disrupting natural gas service. Four public meetings were held on the project in 2012.

In May of last year, Fallston residents pleaded for the company to stop construction through yards and agricultural fields, largely in the Woodsbrooke area.

Although the current pipeline runs through Harford into Pennsylvania, a Columbia spokesman said the company has no plans to expand the parallel line beyond the Rutledge station.

 

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