Volume 12, Issue 38 ~ September 16-22, 2004
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Before It Gets a New Gas Pipeline, Calvert County Needs Answers
by Sara E. Leeland

Calvert farmer Brian Ferguson’s hair is graying, and he speaks with a hand-held voice microphone, but he’s standing up against the mega-sized energy corporation that wants to run a three-foot-diameter natural gas pipeline through his pristine land.

“My farm is in Calvert’s agricultural preservation plan,” he says. “We have critical areas near St. Leonard’s Creek, wetlands, streams and unbroken forest areas. Dominion Cove Point Liquid Natural Gas plans to cut a 100-foot-wide swath through all of that.”

Ferguson and 17 other St. Leonard-area landowners denied the energy company permission to survey their land. Now those 18 landowners have been notified that Dominion Resources, owner of the Cove Point Plant, has filed suit in Calvert’s circuit court to gain access to their lands. If Dominion wins, property owners would lose their legal right to refuse the survey. What seemed to be a choice turns out to be no choice at all.

Instead of being rewarded for protecting forest and farmland to Keep Calvert Country, these citizens say they feel targeted. So they’ve formed a citizen-action group called Concerns About Pipeline Expansion (www.capecalvert.org). In CAPE, they seek to open a forum on the new pipeline.

Last month, a standing-room-only crowd joined them at St. Leonard’s Dowell House to ask questions and seek answers.

Isn’t an industrial pipeline ‘development’? And isn’t protected farmland off-limits to ‘development’? That big question found no answer at the meeting. Afterward, Calvert’s farmland preservation director Greg Bowen tried to provide an answer. “A pipeline is a utility, more like a power line or road than like a housing development,” he said. “If it’s in the national interest, the federal government can override local program regulations.”

But a gas pipeline isn’t exactly like a road or power line, which normally serve the people of the area. The gas in the pipeline is intended for the upper Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. The profits go to Dominion, an out-of-state corporation, and its stockholders

Calvert County gets an operation with pipelines that snake underground, mostly through field and forest, sometimes under power lines, but occasionally close to homes. At this meeting and elsewhere, people gasp when they see pictures of Field Road in the White Sands area, where the pipeline passes down the narrow streets of the closely built community.

If a pipeline can “override local program regulations,” can it also violate Maryland’s state Critical Areas law? The existing line, which pre-dates the protective regulation, travels under St. Leonard Creek. The new line is projected to cross, by tunnel, a wider, forested and marshy portion of the Creek’s tidal zone. At the public gathering, State Sen. Roy Dyson promised to answer this question, finding out how such a plan meshes with — or violates — critical areas law.

If the pipeline comes, will it be safe? On the question of safety, Dominion spokesman Daniel Donovan expressed confidence. Company people “fly over the pipeline on a monthly basis,” he said. “If needed, we walk the line.” A moving robot inside the pipeline uses ultrasound to measure the pipe wall for flaws. So Calvert’s pipeline has been accident free, Donovan said

Yet Dyson wasn’t reassured that company oversight was enough watching. Because the pipeline is interstate, it is also regulated by federal officials. Not even federal oversight satisfied this self-proclaimed “fan of pipelines.” Federal offices, Dyson said, don’t have the staff to do effective monitoring.

Watching is more important given the proximity of the Dominion Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal and pipeline to Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

Calvert officials see the nuclear power and natural gas plants as major economic assets. Their tax payments helped create Calvert’s outstanding school system and its comparatively lower property taxes.

But Sen. Dyson pointed out the down side of these twin assets. That stretch of the county, he said, “is the only place in the nation where two such plants are within a few miles of each other.”

Natural gas is an environmentally cleaner energy source than coal-fired or nuclear-powered generators. But more than cleanness is at stake here. It’s hard but absolutely essential to protect land even when big profits compete with land-saving. If Dominion is allowed to proceed with its preferred pipeline route, Calvert and Maryland citizens must ask: What are the limits? Will a third pipeline be welcomed in protected areas? Do energy needs and profits trump all other land and water protections?

There are plenty of questions and few answers as Dominion pushes to expand its newly recommissioned plant and build a new pipeline.

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