A Baltimore County Circuit judge ruled that the Maryland Department of the Environment improperly issued a permit to a gas company for its 21-mile pipeline along parts of the Gunpowder River in northern Baltimore County.

The move temporarily stops the pipe-line construction, which has riled neighbors, environmental groups and the Friends of Oregon Ridge, a county nature park that sits near the gas company right of way.

Circuit Judge Justin King found the permit that the MDE issued to Columbia Gas lacking in many respects. The department, he said, did not give the public adequate notice to review and comment on the proposed right of way. When the company changed its route, the department did not inform people. It did not allow for a review of historic properties on the route. And it did not examine less destructive options for laying the 26-inch pipeline across sensitive wetland areas.

Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux Le Gardeur filed the complaint in circuit court along with Kenneth and Phyllis Bosley, who are landowners along the route. The court ruled that the Gunpowder Riverkeeper did have standing to mount the challenge because of the group’s role as an advocate for clean water. In doing so, King cited a recent Patuxent Riverkeeper case that has established standing for environmental advocacy and recreation groups throughout Maryland.

Le Gardeur was gratified by the judge’s 49-page decision. “It is a compelling decision. And the reason is that the permit is tied to water-quality standards,” Le Gardeur said. “I always thought I’d be able to tell MDE and Columbia that they were moving too quickly. Lord knows I tried. Part of what Riverkeepers do is get people to meetings. But it wasn’t easy for me to do because the people didn’t have enough notice to get ahead of this issue.”

Le Gardeur has another case pending against Columbia in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. That case is against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which also granted a permit to Columbia.

Although the proposed pipeline route would cross 81 streams, and half of them feed a drinking water reservoir for Baltimore City and County, the MDE only required monitoring on one of them, a Tier II waterway. The judge noted in his decision that the MDE and Columbia failed to explain how monitoring only one stream could adequately communicate the project’s impact to waterway health.

Le Gardeur has noted since the beginning that all of the agency’s communications have focused on trout and aquatic resources and not emphasized that much of Baltimore County’s drinking water comes from these streams, which feed the Loch Raven Reservoir. If people knew drinking water could be harmed, he said, they would be much more likely to show up and meetings and become informed.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources also was concerned that the MDE had approved Columbia to do open-trench drilling in wetlands areas instead of high-density drilling, which is more expensive and takes longer but causes less damage. Much of the Gunpowder River watershed remains excellent wildlife habitat, supporting coldwater fisheries and recreational angling, tubing and swimming.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the agency is reviewing the decision and considering its options.

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” so it can provide a backup source of supply in the event of outages. It also wants to be able to properly maintain the infrastructure without service disruptions, which is easier to accomplish with a loop system.

Le Gardeur said his goal was never to stop the project; he just wanted to make sure the permit was as protective of water resources as it could be.

Last year, Columbia sued dozens of property owners in Harford and Baltimore counties, using eminent domain to take part of their land for its pipeline project. But even in cases where the company reached agreements, the property owners complained the company didn’t restore the land to the way it had been.

Sarah Merryman, who owns a horse farm near the Little Gunpowder, said her brother had signed agreements with the gas company for them to build the pipeline. Her brother died, and she and her living siblings inherited the 88-acre farm as well as the agreements. The gas company put a right of way through her pastures and she said they are not usable, because they did not fertilize and work the land properly.

“The deal is that they were supposed to put it back the way it was. What a joke,” Merryman said. “You might as well put seed on Interstate 95. They didn’t do anything to amend the soil.”

Merryman said it’s too late for her, but she hopes the victory will help other landowners.

“Theaux is tenacious,” she said. “It’s not easy to go up against these guys, but he did it.”