National Park Service will give access to Columbia Gas to go under C&O Canal

by Kate Shunney

National Park Service officials have said they will grant a right of way permit to Columbia Gas to drive an 8-inch natural gas pipeline under the C&O Canal west of Hancock.

C&O Canal Superintendent Kevin Brandt recommended the action on September 12. National Capital Area Acting Director Lisa Mendelson-Ielmini approved the recommendation on September 23, according to National Park Service documents.

The park service announced on September 26 they completed an environmental review of the proposed gas pipeline project and found it would have no significant impact on the easement area.

Columbia Gas has said it will install the gas pipeline 116 to 148 feet below the ground surface through the Hancock area using horizontal drilling.

“There will be no surface ground disturbance or staging of equipment on NPS land or the NPS easement. Electric grid guide wires will be laid by hand on the ground along the pipeline drill path during construction to create an

electromagnetic sensor grid,” park officials noted in their FONSI document. “No ground or surface disturbing activities will be required for installation of the guide wires except for minor hand clearing of a one to two-foot-wide path for the wires in thickly vegetated areas. Tree clearing for workspace (entry/exit locations) would not occur within 1,000 feet of NPS property.”

The National Park Service said they would grant a right-of-way permit to the gas company once Columbia Gas completes an appraisal for the value of the land use and the Department of the Interior approves a final valuation.

Columbia Gas got federal approval to build 3.4 miles of gas pipeline from Fulton County, Pa. to Morgan County, W.Va. in July 2018. The Federal

Energy Regulator Commission (FERC) found the interstate energy project was in the public interest and posed no significant environmental dangers.

Opponents of the project dispute that finding and asked FERC to force Columbia Gas to prepare a full environmental impact statement for the pipeline.

Close to a mile of the gas pipeline would run under the Potomac River. Environmental advocates and a growing list of Maryland public officials have said the pipeline poses an unnecessary danger to the Potomac.

Maryland officials denied Columbia Gas a right of way under the Western Maryland Rail Trail in January of this year. The trail runs roughly parallel to the C&O Canal from Big Pool to Little Orleans.

In May, Columbia Gas sued the state to force them to grant access under the Western Maryland Rail Trail.

In August, a U.S. District judge dismissed a suit by Columbia Gas aimed at forcing the Maryland Division of Natural Resources to let the pipeline be built under the paved hiking and biking trail.

Private land owners and other entities, including the Town of Hancock, have already signed right-of-way agreements with the gas company to permit them to build the line on their property.

Access under the C&O Canal was one of the final easements the company needed to start construction of the pipeline.

Minor adverse impacts

Under “Rationale For Decision,” federal park officials wrote: “The permit will be granted because of the limited impact to the Park.”

“As documents in the EA [environmental assessment], the selected alternative has the potential for only very minor adverse impacts to vegetation (minor hand clearing of one to two-foot-wide path).

“Due to the proposed depth of the pipeline and the absence of ground surface disturbance within the Park, impacts to all other natural and cultural resources will be avoided. The will be no significant impacts to public health, public safety, or unique characteristics of the region,” park officials wrote in

their Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for a Right-of-Way permit.

In that document, park officials said the C&O Canal Development Act of 1971 allows for utility crossings under the park “as long as such crossings are not in conflict with the purposes of the park and are in accordance with any requirements found necessary to preserve park values and resources.”

Park documents cite Columbia Gas’ reasons for building the pipeline from Southern Fulton County into West Virginia, saying it is “to increase supply options and system reliability, and provide firm transportation service to Columbia’s customers, which will provide service to markets in West Virginia.”

According to park officials, a right of way permit for Columbia Gas will be good for 10 years, after which it can be re-evaluated.

Columbia Gas estimates the 3.4-mile pipeline will cost $25 million to build. It will provide a natural gas feed to 23 miles of new gas pipeline built by Mountaineer Gas between Berkeley Springs and Martinsburg this past year.