ST. LEONARD – It was shaping up to be the rarest of energy projects: a proposed natural gas pipeline ready to be built through three Southern Maryland counties without serious opposition from either regulators or environmental groups.
But that was before a St. Leonard tree farmer named George ‘Stovy’ Brown and a group of his neighbors began asking questions about the pipeline’s proposed route and its impact on Calvert County’s environment and farmland.
“It’s time to step back and look at the total impact of what we’re doing,” Brown says when asked about his personal stake in the project. “If we don’t have people stepping back and saying ‘we’re getting nibbled to death by a duck’, each nibble might be small, but we’re still dead. This may be one nibble, but it’s a major one.”
The proposal by Dominion Resources, Inc., a Richmond-based utility and energy company, would add a parallel line to the company’s existing Southern Maryland pipeline by 2008, enabling it to transport enough natural gas per day to meet the energy needs of 6.1 million homes, almost doubling its current capacity.
The current 48-mile, buried pipeline, which has been in use since 1978, runs from Dominion’s Cove Point liquid natural gas terminal in southern Calvert County, through part of southern Prince George’s County, to Marshall Hall, on the east bank of the Potomac River in Charles County.
Many Calvert residents and politicians agree that the expansion is vital to the distribution of natural gas to surrounding states. Its critics are mainly concerned with the new pipeline’s proposed route.
“The citizens of Calvert County are rightfully concerned,” Senator Roy P. Dyson, D – Southern Maryland, wrote in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “I hear that the majority is not opposed to the pipeline; they are opposed to Dominion’s proposed route.”
Unusually, neither environmental groups nor regulatory agencies are raising major concerns about the proposed expansion.
Natural gas is a much cleaner-burning fuel than coal, the leading source of power generation in Maryland. Partially because of this, environmental groups are not strongly opposing the project.
“Coal is an environmental disaster for all Marylanders,” Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said. “With natural gas you donÕt have mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide problems.”
“This is a project that we think is good for the environment,” Dominion spokesman Daniel Donovan said. “And it will bring in the environmentally-preferable energy source, natural gas.”
Under the company’s proposal, two sections of the new pipeline will deviate from its current route in Calvert County, thereby disturbing, according to FERC documents, 4.9 miles of the county’s virgin land.
That’s a number Brown refused to accept without putting up a fight, so in August 2004, he co-founded a Calvert County community group called Concerned About Pipeline Expansion, which now has 270 county residents on its mailing list.
“What about the rural character of Calvert County?” Brown asked. “How many times can you carve up (a county) that’s eight miles wide?”
He and C.A.P.E. want to protect the virgin land, much of which is densely forested. The forests the pipeline would run through are cool and dim because the canopy keeps out most sunlight, and their ferns and mosses are a lush green, fed by rainwater on its way to St. Leonard Creek, which is 3,000 feet wide at points.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the land is a potential home to many animals, some of which, like the bald eagle, are endangered. Other parts of the proposed pipeline will cross through farmland, much of which is in agricultural preservation.
One divergence bypasses a section of the White Sands Community housing development, and the proposed route will cross St. Leonard Creek at a different point than the current one does.
Dominion had to make the White Sands Community divergence, Donovan said, because new homes and buildings had been built too close to the existing pipeline for construction to be feasible or safe.
Maryland Conservation Council President Mary P. Marsh said some homeowners even built sheds and swing sets over the existing line.
It is impossible to cross St. Leonard Creek parallel to the existing pipeline, Donovan said, because of the topography there.
C.A.P.E. presented Dominion with alternate route plans carefully drafted to run along already-impacted land, including highways and power lines. After studying and considering them, Dominion decided to stick with their original proposal.
“There’s a higher environmental impact in their proposal,” Donovan said. “You donÕt go under St. Leonard Creek, but you do go through the headwaters, so there are a lot of places where there are wetlands and wildlife habitats.”
According to FERC’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, Dominion’s route disturbs 4.9 miles of virgin land and crosses one “major” water body (St. Leonard Creek), while C.A.P.E.’s route disturbs no virgin land and avoids crossing the creek.
Dominion’s route also crosses 30 acres of land in a state agricultural preservation program in Calvert County, as opposed to C.A.P.E.’s 11 acres. However, the Dominion route crosses only 2,292 feet of wetlands, while the C.A.P.E. proposal would cross 7,325 feet.
“We determined,” FERC’s draft Environmental Impact Statement reads, “that none of the pipeline route alternatives or variations would reduce environmental impacts to such an extent that they would be environmentally preferable to the proposed route.”
Delegate Sue Kullen, D – Calvert, takes issue with that conclusion.
“Do not tell us that Dominion picked the most environmentally sensitive route,” Kullen wrote in a letter to FERC, “when it is clearly the path of least resistance. Do not tell us that alternative paths were considered when not one of our recommendations was acted on.”
One of the main concerns C.A.P.E. has with the environmental impact analysis, Brown says, is that outside firms were not hired to do the environmental impact work, and that FERC, which is currently on track to clear the construction of the expansion this spring, accepted the numbers the company’s experts presented them with.
“FERC bought the Dominion position with no changes,” Brown said. “Nobody’s that good. Not even Dominion.”
The process Dominion followed to choose the expansion’s route was performed in accordance with requirements to protect the environment and public safety, Maryland Conservation Council officials say.
MCC and the Sierra Club have worked to keep the Cove Point terminal environmentally sound, in a partnership with its owners through the years, since 1972, Marsh said, several years before it was built.
“Because it’s been so long a working agreement that has produced a good working relationship between the parties,” Marsh said, “There are many within the natural gas industry that are looking to it as a model.”
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has, however, drafted a letter to FERC outlining concerns they and several other agencies have with Dominion’s proposal, none of which call for halting the project or changing its proposed route.
C.A.P.E co-founder Brian Ferguson, 49, has a more personal interest in the pipeline project. He grows corn, wheat, soy and trees in the rolling fields surrounding his home on Buttonwood Farm on the banks of St. Leonard Creek.
Ferguson’s great-uncle bought Buttonwood, which is now designated agricultural preservation land, in 1950 and it has been in the family ever since. He summered there as a child and canoed, swam and fished in the creek. He has lived and farmed there for the past decade.
Dominion has announced plans to horizontally drill under St. Leonard Creek starting from one of his fields, a couple hundred feet from his house, in spite of its protected status, leaving him feeling helpless, he says, because they can use eminent domain if he doesn’t comply.
Dominion worked extensively to act upon landowner’s concerns, but in certain instances, they say, such as the St. Leonard Creek crossing, they had to make tough decisions. “I look at this time of my life as the steward of my family property,” Ferguson said. “I want to make sure that future generations know that I have done everything possible to ensure that our family’s property is safe and secure.”