Columbia Gas sues Maryland for pipeline access under Western Maryland Rail Trail

by Kate Shunney

Columbia Gas has sued the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in an effort to get an easement under the Western Maryland Rail Trail west of Hancock in order to build a natural gas pipeline.

Maryland’s Board of Public Works denied the easement to the gas company in January, citing ongoing concerns about the safety of the proposed 3.4-mile gas line.

Last Thursday, May 16, Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC filed a condemnation suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

The company argues that it should be able to exercise its “power of eminent domain” to gain immediate access to a segment of the Western Maryland Rail-Trail that is 102 feet long and 50 feet wide. That section of land is part of a 4,294-foot horizontal directional drill (HDD) that’s part of the proposed gas line construction.

That drill would allow the company to drive the gas line under the Rail-Trail, C&O Canal and the Potomac River. The company claims the drilling would be 175 feet below the rail trail and 114 feet beneath the Potomac River.

“Neither the entry nor the exit point of the HDD is situated on the Tract at issue, accordingly, there is no contemplated disturbance of the surface of the Tract as a result of the Project,” the condemnation complaint says.

Attorneys for the gas company argue that Columbia Gas negotiated with the State of Maryland for the easement in question and offered $5,000 consideration for the use of the land. The Board of Public Works issued their decision to deny the easement at a January 2 meeting.

“The Natural Gas Act expressly permits a holder of a Certificate to acquire the necessary land and rights ‘by the exercise of the right of eminent domain’ if it is unable to reach an agreement with the landowner,” Columbia Gas says in the suit.

Columbia claims that the inability to get the easement will harm their company significantly, pulling the plug on a project they have invested millions of dollars in already.

They also argue the lack of easement will harm their customer, Mountaineer Gas, which has agreed to buy natural gas transported by the proposed pipeline in order to serve customers in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

According to the 77-page complaint filed on May 16, Columbia Gas has nearly all of the easements it needs to begin construction on the $23 million pipeline project. Only the Western Maryland Rail Trail parcel and three tracts along the C&O Canal have not been secured by the gas company.

“Of the 22 tracts of real property impacted by the Project in total, Columbia has, prior to instituting these proceedings, successfully negotiated the voluntary acquisition of easements on 18 tracts (82% of the tracts), leaving only this single tract and three others under common ownership of the National Park Service unacquired. All privately-owned property has been voluntarily acquired without the need for Court intervention,” the suit says.

Gas company attorneys argue that construction must begin and move forward in order for the company to meet a contract to have the pipeline in service by November 1, 2020.

They also argue they must begin construction now to beat the July 19, 2020 expiration of the Certificate of Public Need, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC has approved the interstate pipeline project, which would begin in Fulton County, Pa., run through Washington County west of Hancock, and end in northern Morgan County, W.Va.

Columbia has requested a speedy hearing on their request to gain immediate access to the land under the Western Maryland Rail Trail. They’ve also asked that the court consider that separate from the question of how much Columbia Gas would have to pay the state for use of the land.

The section of Rail-Trail that Columbia Gas wants to drill beneath is situated along Berm Road between the properties of Vincent Gavin and Rodney and Farrah Long, according to court records. The company is seeking a permanent easement for the gas line to remain under the trail once it is built.