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Maryland seeks dismissal of lawsuit over gas pipeline easement

Maryland is asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit over a controversial natural gas pipeline that was filed after the Maryland Board of Public Works refused to grant permission to drill under the Western Maryland Rail Trail.

Columbia Gas Transmission LLC filed a lawsuit in May asking a federal judge to condemn the property and issue an injunction granting immediate access.

A spokeswoman for TransCanada, which owns Columbia Gas, said Tuesday that legal action was not the company’s preference.

“As a company, we are proud of our commitment to working collaboratively with landowners and delivering the project in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” Carol Wirth said in an emailed statement.

In its motion to dismiss filed Monday, the state contends that the 11th Amendment prevents a federal court from ordering the state to grant an easement.

“We are vigorously defending Maryland’s right to refuse a pipeline company’s efforts to drill under state land,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in a statement.

The pipeline in question would run from Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Columbia Gas would need to purchase the right to drill under state land near Hagerstown. The Board of Public Works unanimously voted to block the sale of the easement in January after protests from environmental groups and legislators.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of the three board members, said after the vote that he agreed with opponents who claimed the project would “subject our state to all the environmental problems of this pipeline and get none of the economic benefits.”

The tract of land owned by the state is one of the final pieces for which Columbia Gas still needs an easement, according to the complaint filed May 16 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Columbia Gas was offering $5,000 in return for the right to use the land.

Because the parties have been unable to negotiate, Columbia Gas alleges in its lawsuit that it has the right to exercise eminent domain. Columbia Gas last year obtained a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or CPCN, giving it the power to condemn the land. The project has been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issued the CPCN, and the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The CPCN expires July 19, 2020. Columbia Gas says it needs to begin construction as soon as possible to finish by next summer, according to the lawsuit.

The case is Columbia Gas Transmission LLC v. .12 Acres of Land et al., 1:19-cv-01444.

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