The Gunpowder Riverkeeper has fought back one utility company’s plan that he and other advocates for the river say would have endangered habitat within Maryland’s Gunpowder Falls State Park, but he’s still fighting another company on a pipeline project that would cut through other parts of the watershed.
The Gunpowder River, which flows through the park, supplies water to 1.5 million Baltimore area residents. Baltimore Gas and Electric had planned to clear trees in the right of way of an existing high-voltage power line that runs through the park. The company also planned to spray herbicides, which could have harmed new growth, and to sell the timber, which could increase erosion as contractors removed the logs from sensitive areas.
But Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux Le Gardeur met with officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and persuaded regulators there to impose restrictions to the gas company’s proposal.
The department is now requesting a time-of-year restriction, meaning that the gas company won’t be able to perform any tree-clearing or weed-management work from Oct. 1 to April 30. That’s because, according to Tony Redman of DNR’s project review division, the Gunpowder Falls is “an important trout habitat, containing a wild reproducing population of brown trout and is considered one of the most economically important trout fisheries in the State of Maryland.”
Redman’s letter also restricted the use of herbicides to ones that are safe for aquatic life and directed BGE to spray them selectively and only on the upper section of the right of way to safeguard the health of the river. It also forbade the removal of trees and any selling of timber from the public park.
Le Gardeur called Redman’s decision “meaningful and protective” and said it “sets a good precedent” that, in the future, perhaps, communities could be notified earlier about such projects. Le Gardeur said he received the notice well before the comment period ended, but he got it directly from the DNR. The notice in the newspaper of record directed comments to BGE. Le Gardeur said the general public’s notice, which was mailed, directed people to a public meeting but did not have an address or an e-mail where they could send comments if they could not attend the meeting.
Le Gardeur is not done battling another utility company on other parts of his scenic river. Columbia Gas plans to construct a 21-mile pipeline along much of the Gunpowder. Columbia wants the line to enhance reliability for its customers to the north and east of Baltimore. It says it needs to build the pipeline and an extension to have a “loop pipeline” to ensure a backup source of supply in the event of outages. It also wants to be able to properly maintain the infrastructure without service disruptions.
But the proposed pipeline would cross 81 streams, and half of them feed the drinking water reservoir for Baltimore City and County. In the first permit, the Maryland Department of the Environment only required monitoring on one of them.
Last spring, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Justin King ruled that the MDE improperly issued the permit. Le Gardeur considered the 49-page decision a victory. But then the MDE re-issued a permit that allowed the company to open-trench drill in all but one of the stream crossings.
The open-trench drilling is less expensive and more disruptive to fish habitat and prone to increased sedimentation. Le Gardeur would instead like to see horizontal directional drilling, a time-intensive technique that bores a hole for the pipeline and would spare much of the landscape from disruption.
Nationwide, many projects have moved to horizontal directional drilling to protect fish habitat and streams, but some companies don’t like the added expense.
The Gunpowder Riverkeeper has again challenged the latest permit and argued its case in court in December. Sarah Merryman is also challenging the permit. The gas company put a right of way through her pastures and she said the land is now unusable, because the company did not fertilize and work the land properly.
Work resumed on the Columbia pipeline when the MDE re-issued the permit, despite the two legal challenges. The court denied a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the work, according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson.
“There were changes in the reissued permit as compared to the permit as originally issued, but they are not less protective of water quality,” Apperson said.