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Council hears two sides of pipeline issue

By Staff | Jul 14, 2017

Chronicle photo by Toni Milbourne Opponents of a proposed pipeline that could provide natural gas to Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties, showed their opposition by holding signs and, at time, heckling speakers at Tuesday evening’s town council meeting.

A standing room only crowd gathered at the Shepherdstown Community Club on Tuesday evening for an opportunity to address the mayor and members of the town council with regard to the proposed Mountaineer Gas pipeline that could find its way through Jefferson County.

Speaking on behalf of Panhandle Protectors, an advocacy group. Tracy Cannon told council members that the pipeline does not fit with their comprehensive plan. Cannon stated that the town’s plan advocates the choice of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Cannon went on to paint the negative pictures of what could happen if a pipeline such as the one proposed that will travel under the Potomac River.

“If there is ever an incident with the pipeline, it would affect Shepherdstown,” she said.

She was followed at the podium by Brent Walls, with the Upper Potomac Riverkeepers, who expounded on concerns that the pipeline will impact local drinking water both through initial construction phases and if any break in the line would occur in the future.

“When (pipelines) leak in karst geography, it will get in people’s drinking water,” Walls said.

Karst topography, which is prevalent in Jefferson County, is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks and is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

“There are no other pipelines under the Potomac on karst geography,” Walls said.

Walls also indicated that the proponents of the pipeline who tout that the energy source is ‘environmentally friendly’ but he said that is not necessarily so.

“The life cycle of gas is far more impactful from start to finish,” Walls said. “There is a direct impact on water resources with fracking.” He urged the Shepherdstown Council to say no to the pipeline and encourage their neighbors in Maryland as well as federal officials to do the same.

Jefferson County Development Authority Board President Eric Lewis spoke in favor of the pipeline indicating the need as far as economic development in the county. He stressed that he was not speaking for Mountaineer Gas and could not answer questions on behalf of that company.

“Jefferson County needs natural gas to get new employers her,” Lewis said. “I wish I knew how many companies said they wouldn’t come here without natural gas.”

While the JCDA is a proponent of alternative sources of energy, Lewis explained that solar and wind are not currently sufficient and may never be to replace other energy sources such as natural gas.

“Natural gas is abundant and regularly used,” Lewis said. “There are hundreds and even thousands of lines in the metro D.C. area with many stream and river crossings who have not had any problems.”

Lewis said that the proposed line through Jefferson County is a 10-inch low pressure distribution line that will bring the gas to Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan County residents and businesses. Many in the room questioned whether residents will be able to hook into the gas line. Lewis said the hook up capability will be there, but as with any utility, the burden to pay for connection will fall on the resident. Residents may choose to hook in or not to hook in based on their economic situations.

For the economic development potential in attracting companies, and hence, jobs to the area, Lewis urged the council to support the pipeline.

Susan Pipes, Women’s March outreach captain for Shepherdstown, spoke out against the line.

“People didn’t move here to make this a big booming business place,” she said. Her statement seemed to indicate that individuals were content with the town and county as it is without the need for additional business. She questioned who would work in such businesses because with the current opioid epidemic, individuals could not pass drug tests to be employed.

Another concern raised in opposition to the pipeline was the potential of eminent domain taking the properties of landowners. Dean and Patricia Kesecker, of Morgan County, lost a court battle with Mountaineer Gas and lost part of their land over which the pipeline will run.

While again stressing that he did not speak for the gas company, Lewis did say that while the taking of land is unfortunate, it is often the case with any utility.

A discussion of tourism as a main business in the county had several people saying that natural gas is not necessary to grow that economic climate in the county.

Laura Bayer, with Eastern Panhandle Protectors, said tourism has to be promoted.

“We can grow without contaminating tourism,” she said with regard to potential breaks in the pipeline under the Potomac.

The fear of drinking water contamination ran high among those gathered, including individuals from further down river in Maryland and closer to Washington, D.C. who would be affected should there ever be a break in a line.

Mayor Jim Auxer, who had to remind the crowd at times to be civil during Lewis’s time at the podium, concluded the meeting by saying that Shepherdstown is known as a ‘green town.’ He said no decision is ready to be made with regard to how the council will act on the issue of the pipeline.

“Our water board will explore this and see what decision might come. We need to study all of the information.”

Auxer went on to say, “When I say study, it doesn’t mean we’re putting it off but that we are seeing all the facts to see what is best for Shepherdstown.”

He encouraged all residents to submit their concerns or supportive comments to the council via letters to Town Hall, email or phone calls.