Supporters of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park are understandably alarmed by a BGE plan to build a new gas pipeline through the area. The pipeline, which serves about 90,000 customers in the city and county, was one of the first such conduits built in the Baltimore region, and it has been repaired dozens of times since it was first laid in 1949.
But the company says it's now reached the end of its useful life and must be replaced. The problem is that building a new pipeline along the original route may be impossible under today's stricter environmental regulations, while the available alternatives could require the company to cut down hundreds of the park's historic and beloved old-growth trees.
Some advocates for the park have called on BGE to offer a plan that avoids altogether any new pipeline construction through the park. From an environmentalist's point of view that probably would constitute the ideal solution, but as a practical matter it's not likely to happen. For one thing, going completely around the park would mean tearing up miles of residential streets in surrounding neighborhoods and possibly coming into conflict with existing underground water, sewer and power lines. The cost and inconvenience of such a massive project would likely be insurmountable.
BGE officials are exploring another idea that involves re-routing the new line along the edges of the park. The goal would be to minimize any environmental damage to the more heavily forested areas near the park's center. The merit of that plan is that it wouldn't require workers to widen the access corridor along the line's current route, which could leave the center of the forest vulnerable to new invasive species. And while building around the park's edges would involve culling some desirable trees, it would also clear away many of the invasive species now there and prevent them from encroaching nearer to the old-growth trees in the middle of the park.
The trick will be finding a route that minimizes the project's potential damage to the environment while allowing BGE to continue serving the needs of its customers efficiently. The existing pipeline almost certainly could never have been built today because it runs astride a small stream that ultimately empties into the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay. Those are protected waterways under the federal Clean Water Act and state environmental laws. But while those regulations have helped limit the contamination of our water and air by pollutants, they were never designed to protect trees like the ones the Leakin Park advocates are seeking to preserve.
Advocates for the park say cutting down more trees will reduce Baltimore's tree canopy — the proportion of the city's area shaded by trees — that helps keep residents cool in hot weather and cleanses the air and water. They also point out this is happening at a time when Baltimore is struggling to increase the size of its tree canopy through new plantings carried out by public-private partnerships and an expanded effort by the city parks department. But parks officials say that even in the worst-case scenario cutting some of the trees at Leakin Park to accommodate BGE's pipeline project would result in the loss of only a tiny fraction of the city's total tree canopy.
Ultimately there's no perfect solution that would allow BGE to build a new gas pipeline without going through some part of the park grounds or without cutting down a single tree. The park's advocates need to continue working with BGE officials, state regulators and parks department representatives to consider all the options and come up with a plan that balances their desire to preserve the park's historic character against the needs of the company's customers. That's the only way to resolve this issue, and the stakeholders all need to work together to come up a compromise everyone can live with.