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A Flyfisherman enjoying the late summer breeze while standing in the center of the Gunpowder River. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore Co. judge rejects MDE permit for proposed natural gas pipeline

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge has ordered the Maryland Department of the Environment to revise a permit it issued for a 21-mile natural gas pipeline that would run into Harford County.

Judge Justin J. King ruled last week it was “impossible” for him to determine whether the permit complies with water quality regulations because it lacks specifics. He also said MDE did not give enough time for public notice and comment.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC had received all the necessary permits for the pipeline, which would connect two portions of an existing line between the Owings Mills Metering and Regulating Station and the Rutledge Compressor Station in Harford County. It received a permit from MDE in April 2014 that was challenged by six different parties in Baltimore and Harford counties, all of which were consolidated before King.

Among the objecting parties was the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, which felt MDE moved too quickly to grant the permit. Theaux M. Le Gardeur, the group’s executive director, said the ruling will bolster future challenges to other permits.

“It’s very helpful to the cause of clean water and the idea that these permits the agency is handing down are protecting our water,” he said. “You can’t just say the [water] quality is going to be met without proof.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for MDE, said the agency is reviewing the ruling and considering its options.

MDE returned Columbia Gas’ initial application for a permit in December 2012 because the agency wanted additional information that the pipeline “will not cause or contribute to a degradation of water quality standards,” according to King’s opinion. Columbia Gas provided the additional information, and a total of 100 people attended two public hearings on the permit in the spring 2013, according to King’s opinion.

King ruled in part that the permit’s requirement of monitoring the water quality one time at Little Gunpowder Falls after the pipeline is installed is not enough for a project that the Riverkeeper says would cross 81 waterways in a 305-acre area.

“Respondents failed to explain how monitoring one stream is representative of the entire project, ensuring Columbia’s project will not cause or contribute to the degradation of State water qualities,” King wrote.

King similarly found the permit’s special conditions did not include any specific standards but instead relied on benchmarks created by more general “outside documents.”

“Even if a person were to know how to access all of these documents and actually does access them, determining whether the Project was in compliance would be an onerous task and one that requires ‘more expertise than one could reasonably expect,'” he said.

The judge ruled public notices about the project did not accurately show the location of the proposed construction in part because the pipeline route changed several times.

“The route of the pipeline is a significant aspect of the Project, about which members of the public were not afforded accurate notice or an opportunity to comment,” he wrote.

King also found in favor of Kenneth and Phyllis Bosley, owners of historic Balama Farms in Sparks, who argued the proposed pipeline construction would invade their privacy by allegedly requiring one or more 300-foot-deep holes in the middle of their cornfield. King ruled MDE did not provide evidence showing the Maryland Historical Trust determined Balama Farms would be unaffected by the project.

Carolyn Elefant, a lawyer for the Bosleys, said the couple has two other gas easements on its property and proposed alternate sites for the Columbia Gas pipeline.

“They were gratified that the state has to look at the impact on the farmhouse and their farm,” said Elefant, a Washington, D.C., solo practitioner.

Elizabeth R. Geise, a lawyer for Columbia Gas, did not respond to a request for comment. Geise is a partner with Schiff Hardin LLP in Washington.

The case is In the Matter of Kenneth T. Bosley, et al. 03C14005417.

[UPDATE — May 5, 11:30 a.m.: A spokesman for Columbia Gas’ parent company, Columbia Pipeline Group, said it will continue to work with MDE to receive all the necessary permits for the pipeline.

“This project is vital to strengthening the natural gas infrastructure of central Maryland and surrounding communities,” said Scott Castleman, adding Columbia Gas will continue to work with residents as the project moves forward.]