Gov. Larry Hogan and his Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) appear poised to approve a TransCanada fracked gas pipeline that would run through three miles of Maryland, including beneath the Potomac River, which serves as the drinking water supply for residents in the D.C. metro area.
This administration, the same one that supported a ban on fracking in Maryland, recently issued a fact sheet about this fracked gas pipeline entitled “What You Need to Know.” But it omitted what they apparently don’t want us to know: the possible harms to public health of constructing this pipeline.
As a commissioner on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative, I observed how state and federal regulatory agencies ignore or minimize public health threats from the oil and gas industry. Because citizens demanded that Maryland legislators protect their health, and it was clear MDE’s proposed fracking regulations would not, Maryland banned fracking in 2017. So, we should be wary when MDE minimizes threats to public health associated with this pipeline.
There are four major omissions to the information presented by MDE in its fact sheet, which minimizes the risk this pipeline poses to Marylanders.
First, the agency never identifies that the owner operator of this transmission line would be TransCanada. Columbia Gas Transmission, listed as the applicant, might be a friendlier name for Marylanders, but TransCanada purchased Columbia Gas and is an operator with a very troubling track record. At the recent public hearing on this pipeline in Hancock last month, numerous citizens described TransCanada’s poor safety record, recent permit violations and inaccurate representations to regulators about likelihood of safety and public health risks. (TransCanada is the company behind the Keystone pipeline, which recently spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.) In fact, so many people wanted to speak, MDE had to schedule a second hearing, set for Monday evening at the Hancock Middle/High School; the deadline for written testimony has also been extended, to Jan. 25.
Second, MDE states that material safety data sheets “indicate” that drilling fluids do not include toxic compounds. Unstated is whether data sheets exist for all compounds that will be used to horizontally drill 114 feet below the Potomac River bed. Chemicals without safety data sheets could be used to drill under a critical drinking water supply for Maryland; in fact, toxicity of one-third of chemicals used by the oil and gas industry in drilling have not been researched, and we do not know their harms.
Furthermore, horizontal directional drills use proprietary drilling fluids, meaning that the exact chemical composition does not have to be revealed to the public. There is an ongoing investigation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission into whether unapproved ingredients in a drilling fluid mix were used by the Rover pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners, contaminating surface waters in Ohio last year.
Third, with respect to drinking water, MDE “understands that there may be some private wells in the area of the proposed pipeline regulated by the local health department.” Unmentioned are hundreds of drinking water wells in the Potomac River watershed that could experience contamination, and that these wells draw from groundwater aquifers which communicate with and would affect the Potomac River, which is regulated by MDE.
Fourth, MDE states that the “presence of karst geology in the area is not definite.” Unstated is that karst is a network of dissolving rock, with sinkholes, caves and underground drainage systems known to exist in most areas of this proposed pipeline. The reason that presence of karst “is not definite” is because groundwater mapping west of Hagerstown has not been conducted by the state (see Maryland’s 2008 Final Report of the Advisory Committee on the Management and Protection of the State’s Water Resources). TransCanada’s own borehole assessment in the Potomac River watershed points to possible routes of groundwater contamination of both the Potomac and the C & O Canal and the lack of “any relevant groundwater table information.”
Larry Hogan, Governor of Maryland, along with, on the left, President of Senate Mike Miller, and on the right, Speaker of the House of Delegate Michael Busch, sign the fracking ban during a bill signing ceremony. (Pamela Wood, Baltimore Sun video)
The absence of data does not mean the absence of karst and associated groundwater contamination routes. The absence of data means we don’t know enough to make an informed policy decision.
What the general public really needs to know is why MDE is not utilizing the most careful and specific evaluation of public health and safety risks available to them, and most importantly, to us. If they did, like Governor Hogan did with fracking, they would realize that approving this pipeline is not in the better interest of the health and safety of Maryland residents.