A Baltimore County judge stopped completion — at least temporarily — of a 21-mile natural gas pipeline through northern Baltimore and Harford counties, declaring that state regulators failed to do enough to protect environmentally sensitive waterways and historic properties in the controversial project's path.
Circuit Judge Justin J. King ordered the Maryland Department of the Environment to revise the permit it issued last year to Columbia Gas Transmission to lay a 26-inch pipeline from Owings Mills to Fallston. King said state regulators failed to spell out safeguards the company must follow in crossing rivers and streams, making it impossible to tell if the project meets state and federal water-quality regulations.
The judge also said the state didn't properly notify affected property owners or give them a chance to weigh in on the $180 million project. And he said the agency made only a cursory check for potential impacts to historic dwellings.
The ruling issued late last week was hailed by environmentalists, who said regulators glossed over how the pipeline would affect the 81 rivers and streams it's expected to traverse, many of them sources of the Baltimore region's drinking water and some havens for pollution-sensitive trout.
"It will eventually have MDE and Columbia go back through and make this permit more protective of the waterway resources we're advocating for," said Theaux M. Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper and one of the project opponents who took the case to court. "I can't really tell folks where the pipeline should go, but if they do put it in, they should put it in in the right way."
A spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which provided free legal representation for the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, called it an "important victory," saying the judge was holding the state accountable for not doing enough to spare waterways from harm. The spokeswoman, Heather Ballew, noted in particular the judge's criticism of the state for requiring water-quality monitoring at only one of the many streams being crossed.
Jay Apperson, MDE's spokesman, said state officials are reviewing the ruling and considering their options. He said the judge's decision has put a halt to construction in wetlands and waterways until the case is resolved, either by appealing to a higher court or by revising the permit as the judge ordered.
Scott Castleman, a spokesman for Columbia Pipeline Group in Charleston, W.Va., said the company "will continue to work with state and local officials and neighbors to move this important project forward."
The company is roughly halfway done laying the pipeline, which runs parallel to an existing one. Castelman said the project is "vital to strengthening the natural gas infrastructure of Central Maryland and surrounding communities."
The company sued dozens of Baltimore and Harford county property owners last year, invoking eminent domain so it could do pipeline work on more than 400 acres after failing to reach agreements with the owners on access to their land and compensation for the disturbance.
To date, the pipeline has been laid from Fallston to the eastern edge of Oregon Ridge Park near Shawan and Beaver Dam roads, LeGardeur said, with one of the most pristine streams in the state next to be crossed. Advocates for the 1,000-acre county park had complained that the pipeline will destroy a swath of mature forest, disrupt wildlife and possibly degrade a popular swimming lake.
Sarah Merryman also welcomed the court ruling, even though the pipeline already has been put in across her family's horse farm on the Little Gunpowder River. Merryman, 62, said she has lived in the 18th-century farmhouse there since 2010. She contends that neither she nor any of her brothers, who co-own the farm, received written notice of Columbia's plans to cross their property.
Columbia tunneled under the Little Gunpowder to lay its pipeline, Merryman said. While that might have prevented erosion and mud pollution of the river, she said that the heavy construction equipment used for the tunneling compacted the soil, making it unsuitable for pasture. And, she said, silt fencing put up to prevent erosion along the now-filled trench containing the pilpeline has at least temporarily cut the farm in half.
Le Gardeur, the riverkeeper, acknowledged that tunneling under streams to protect water quality and fish can lead to greater disturbance of land on either side. But he contended that property owners deserved more notice of the project's route and how it would be built, so they could weigh in on the trade-offs.
Merryman said even though the ruling comes too late for her, she hopes it will "help all the people in front of us," who have yet to have construction on their property.