Plan for natural gas pipeline under Potomac River in Western Maryland draws scrutiny

Activists with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network set up at Paw Paw Tunnel Campground near Oldtown, Maryland, this summer in preparation for a weekend paddle and protest over TransCanada's plans to build a natural gas pipeline beneath the Potomac River in Western Maryland.
Activists with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network set up at Paw Paw Tunnel Campground near Oldtown, Maryland, this summer in preparation for a weekend paddle and protest over TransCanada's plans to build a natural gas pipeline beneath the Potomac River in Western Maryland. (Patricia Sullivan / The Washington Post)

A proposed 3.5-mile underground natural gas pipeline crossing far below the Potomac River in Western Maryland would provide a critical link, proponents say, between gas producers in Pennsylvania and manufacturers in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.

But opponents are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Department of the Environment to reject the project because it would carry gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a practice state lawmakers voted to ban, while also threatening a river that provides drinking water to millions.


A group of activists in kayaks — "kayaktivists," they call themselves — will paddle the Potomac with signs on Friday, the most recent action in a campaign against the project they hope will echo last summer's protests of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Standing Rock, N.D., and capture the governor's attention.

"It does pose a serious threat to drinking water," said Denise Robbins, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "This pipeline and fracked gas pipelines in general are becoming the new threat to this country. … It's not going to benefit Marylanders whatsoever."


Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a statement that state officials are "taking a hard look" at the proposal, which would run a pipeline underground across the narrowest part of the state near Hancock and under the Potomac River to Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

The state will host a public hearing in the upcoming months to gather input before making a decision, Grumbles said.

"We have requested additional information from the applicant on environmental impacts and engineering features and are working closely with state and federal agencies for a thorough review," he said. "We are committed to protecting our precious Potomac River and the communities and resources that depend upon it."

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TransCanada, the Calgary, Alberta-based natural gas transmission giant behind the Maryland project, has more than a century of experience building pipelines in the area, spokesman Scott Castleman said.


The company operates 56,100 miles of natural gas pipeline, one of North America's largest natural gas networks, and supplies more than a quarter of the continent's natural gas, he said.

"We have a lot of experience putting pipeline in the ground in these areas," he said.

The pipeline's construction will be vital to the economy in eastern West Virginia, which has no underground natural gas reserves of its own, said H. Wood Thrasher, that state's secretary of commerce.

"The TransCanada pipeline is fundamental for the economic future of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia," Thrasher said in a statement. "Having a steady and reliable source of natural gas is vital to attracting business and industry to our state."

The region's existing pipeline system is limited and "basically out of capacity," said John Reisenweber, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Authority in West Virginia.

"We definitely have lost out on investment opportunities for companies that need natural gas," he said. "If we can't check that box on the list of infrastructure a company needs, we're not going to be able to compete."

In a sign of that state's faith in the project, the West Virginia Public Service Commission already has granted Mountaineer Gas Co., the area's natural gas provider, permission to begin building a pipeline between Berkeley Springs and Martinsburg to receive the gas.

In addition to an OK from the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland segment also needs approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Parks Service, among more than 40 required permits. The pipeline also would pass under the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, where protesters have been camping out on many weekends this summer.

The federal energy regulator is set to make its decision in January.

"There are a lot of eyes on this project," Castleman said. "It's under heavy scrutiny from a lot of different groups. We are going to make sure we do the right thing."

If the project receives the necessary approvals, TransCanada expects to begin construction next April.

The firm began public outreach last November and subsequently revised its plans, pledging to bury the pipeline twice as deep, 100 feet, in the section under the riverbed.

"There will be no impacts whatsoever to the water," Castleman said.

Upper Potomac RiverKeeper Brent Walls, an advocate for the protection of the river, wasn't so sure.

It doesn't matter how far below the river the natural gas line is constructed, he said, because if it ruptures, the gas will seep through crevices in the soil, and it would be nearly impossible to track where it goes.

In the event of a leak, the natural gas could seep into residents' homes and well water, causing potential health hazards, he said.

"There have been plenty of incidences across the nation where there have been gas lines that have leaked into their well water, into their drinking water," he said. "That's what we are mostly concerned with."

Even if the pipeline didn't pose an environmental threat to the Potomac River, building such pipelines goes against the intent of Maryland's fracking ban by providing a conduit for fracked gas to travel through the state, Robbins said.

Instead, she argued, the state should move toward green energy.

"Pipelines like this are going to continue to deepen our dependence on fracking," she said.

One of environmentalists' top concerns is the geology of the ground in the region, a landscape known as "karst," which is prone to erosion, fissures and sinkholes they say could rupture or otherwise damage a pipeline.

The Maryland portion of the line may only be a few miles long and cross only briefly under a narrow stretch of the Potomac, but the natural gas would travel through connecting pipelines for 50 miles or more, much of it through karst terrain, Walls said.

"In essence, if we are allowing that kind of action to go on, we're harboring that operation," he said. "Marylanders and those that are downriver from the crossing are assuming all the risk."

However, Castleman noted, a dozen TransCanada pipelines already cross under the Potomac River in Maryland.

A giant network of such pipelines emerged across the United States in the 1950s and '60s, as utility companies stopped manufacturing gas in city centers for homes and businesses in favor of pumping the more potent natural gas in from areas such as the Gulf Coast, said Will Carey, a consultant at Energy Experts International.

TransCanada's proposal sounded like "a common project," that will prevent a natural gas shortage in West Virginia's panhandle, said Carey, who worked for 46 years at Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in New Jersey.

The commitment to bury the pipeline deeper below the riverbed makes sense, he said, and it's a sign TransCanada is compromising with the community on solutions.


It'll cost the company more, Carey said, but going deeper generally makes pipe damage less likely.


"Most ruptures occur when people dig without notifying the gas company," he said.

David Smith, city manager for the Town of Hancock, through which a few hundred feet of the pipeline would run, said public meetings about the project have drawn large numbers of people — both interested residents and protesters, whom he characterized as outsiders.

Hancock officials have no qualms with the project, he said.

"We've done our due diligence and feel that company we're dealing with has expertise in this field," he said.

TransCanada representatives will continue to meet with all stakeholders and make adjustments where it needs to, Castleman said.

"Certainly one of our biggest challenges is making sure we deliver the needs of our customers, but at the same time we're respectful of neighbors we work with along the way," he said. "We're trying to be as minimally invasive as we can and meet the needs of this growing region."

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