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Fallston residents still wary of Columbia pipeline

Fallston residents and council members questioned a Columbia Gas spokesman Tuesday on the necessity of a portion of a natural gas pipeline that would cut through the community.

Alex Oehler, community relations director for Columbia, spoke at the Fallston Community Council meeting Tuesday evening at the Fallston Volunteer Fire Company meeting room and clarified a few concerns regarding rights-of-way and Columbia's plan for the redundant line.

Many residents, however, remain wary of the pipeline's safety, proposed route and intended use.

Oehler stressed how important it is for Columbia to have community input, even negative comments, so it enables them to be best prepared for the project.

About 10 other members working on the pipeline project were also at the meeting.

The company, he said, "has taken a look at our system as a whole" and identified where improvements and upgrades could be made to provide better and safer service for its customers.

One of those, Oehler said, is the existing MA pipeline, which goes through Fallston.

"Our job is to make sure gas is there 24-7 safely and reliably," he said. To ensure that, Columbia concluded that a parallel MB line system needs to be extended from Owings Mills to the Rutledge Road compressor station.

He assured the few residents in attendance that Columbia intends to minimize, as much as possible, the impact it could have on homeowners and natural resources.

Oehler clarified that the entire application process the company must go through with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which held a public hearing earlier in the month, is a 24-month process and Columbia is still in the pre-filing phase.

He anticipates the company will submit its official application around August.

As a result of community feedback, Oehler said, Columbia is looking at another route for the pipeline.

The current proposal has the MB line running nearly parallel to the existing MA pipeline, except in Harford County, where the line would jog south before meeting with the existing line at the Rutledge station north of Fallston. Columbia is, however, looking at possibly taking that line north instead.

The "preferred" route, as Oehler described it, would move along BGE's rights-of-way to get to the Rutledge station, but Columbia is taking a "foot by foot look" right now, he added.

The 26-inch diameter MB line will require a 25-foot right-of-way on either side of it, Oehler said, and the company wants to overlap the right-of-way with the existing MA line.

Within that 75-foot overlapping right-of-way, Oehler continued, Columbia will "try to be as nimble as we can" as to limit disruptions.

"It's a balancing act we have to do," Oehler said.

A common question the company has heard is from homeowners concerned about the impact the pipeline could have on their wells and septic systems.

Joseph Fortier, a resident on Preakness Drive, who could potentially be affected by the pipeline, thanked Columbia for looking at the alternative route, but still was not happy about the 75-foot right-of-way that would "run right through my back yard."

That 75 feet, Fortier continued, would also mean that number of trees potentially being cut down.

Fortier also questioned the three 90-degree turns in the 3-mile pipeline segment in the community and if those turns meant there would be a weakened point in the line.

"Those turns aren't mitered bends," John Rinkus, with Columbia Gas, said, but sweeping turns with the line connected by elbows.

Since Columbia is not using BGE's rights-of-way in its proposed line, Fortier asked if there was an effort on their part or from FERC to put the pressure on BGE to allow them to use their rights-of-way to limit the impact on properties.

Oehler didn't answer Fortier's question directly, but assured him that Columbia was "trying to minimize our impact" on the homeowners.

"Some trees," he continued, "we'll have to take out if this project is approved."

Elayne Trompeter, who also lives on Preakness Drive, asked how many times the MA line has been shut down in its history.

Oehler said work was recently done on the MA, but there hasn't been an incident that would force Columbia to shut it down.

"We think ahead to prevent situations like that," he said.

Andy Amasia, a member of the community council, commented that large sections of pipe would have to be driven up to the area.

What precautions, he asked, would Columbia take to do that "without disrupting other things that are going on," such as traffic.

Rinkus explained that when a contractor is hired they would evaluate the roads and use "low impact equipment" when transporting steel, especially through the neighborhoods.

He also suggested that signs be put up to alert drivers of what's going on.

Community council member Morita Bruce asked why the MB line was being expanded if there haven't been any problems with the MA line.

"We don't want it to go down and lose gas service," Oehler responded, during peak times in the winter. "We have to plan for the contingency."

Dave Williams, community council chairman and a spokesman for the Harford County Fire and EMS Association, chimed in and said since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks the country has looked at every method of energy it uses and has been building "redundancy" in case of another serious emergency on a national level.

The country doesn't want to depend on one public service system anymore, Williams said.

"I [still] don't see the need for a redundant line," Fortier commented.

Jim Franczkowski asked Oehler, "How do you recoup this money" being spent on the project.

Columbia will work with its customers and FERC, he responded, to negotiate a reasonable rate to charge for its natural gas service.

Del. Rick Impallaria, who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, including a portion of Fallston, gave his support for the pipeline.

"Truly we need to upgrade and keep these [lines] safe," he said.

He said the last thing Harford needs is an incident with an old, failing gas line.

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