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Public Safety at Work?

Environmental and quality of life concerns clash against gas line safety plan.

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A view from Chris Bass’s property toward Wiehle Avenue before crews took down trees as part of the Columbia Gas Transmission safety plan.

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A view from Chris Bass’s property toward Wiehle Avenue after crews took down trees as part of the Columbia Gas Transmission safety plan.

When Chris Bass moved to his Herndon home off of Wiehle Avenue two years ago, he had planned to fence in his entire property and build a playground for his small child. What he learned soon after moving in is that he would not be able to fence in, or use, a part of his property — one-third acre valued at approximately $58,000 — because it lies on top of gas pipelines.

Bass’s concern about the pipeline extends past the nuisance of not being able to build on the property as he envisioned. Columbia Gas Transmission, the pipeline owner, cut down the trees that provided the buffer between Bass’s house and Wiehle Avenue as part of its safety plan for the gas line. Since then, he is experiencing a "substantial increase in noise," while his neighbor’s house is lit at night with large trucks’ headlights. The trees also provided a safety buffer. A guardrail is now all that stands between the busy road and the public trail that is joined with Bass’s property, a short hill under Wiehle Avenue. "They have a right [to cut the trees] but they also have an ability to work with the public," said Bass about the company’s right-of-way. "Their safety plan endangers the public," said Bass. "Their safety plan is easily changed."

IN OCTOBER of 2006, crews working under Columbia’s direction came through parts of Herndon clearing its right-of-way, 25 feet on either side of the pipeline. In Bass’s Herndon neighborhood, Shaker Woods, two pipelines run parallel to each other, about 50 feet apart, making a 100-foot clearance. The cutting caused concern among Herndon residents and their government representatives. Bass asserts that the company has not done anything to mitigate the impact on the environmental damage caused, although it has changed some practices in clearing its right-of-way.

Brent Archer, director of communications and government affairs for Columbia’s parent company NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage, said Columbia works closely with the community. He said NiSource recently donated $30,000 to the Friends of Reston and its Nature House project. Archer said the company looks for opportunities to offset the disruptions caused in its safety plan, but that clearing the right-of-way is necessary for public safety. Archer said Columbia has obligations to its customers — Columbia Gas Transmission is the owner of the pipelines, not the gas that comes through them — the regulatory community and agencies that oversee its operations. The company delivers gas to companies who sell it to homeowners, such as Washington Gas and Columbia Gas. "Even more than that, we have an obligation to those communities" to operate the pipelines in a safe manner. "It is very important for us to be able to coexist with the communities along our pipelines," said Archer.

BASS ALLEGES that Columbia Gas Transmission has not replaced a single tree it cut down so far in executing its plan, something a multi-billion dollar corporation could afford. He also claims Columbia is seeking a waiver from a federal environmental protection law.

Archer said the company is not seeking any exemptions, but is working in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service to create a Habitat Conservation Plan. According to Archer, the plan would save the company and the Fish and Wildlife Service money and resources. The company would not have to file for a permit as it relates to the Endangered Species Act each time it does maintenance work. Rather, it would file once for a scope of activities, saving processing fees and time, and then use the funds saved to enhance the habitat for the species its work might affect. "It doesn’t get us out of any permitting," said Archer.

Bass and a group of other residents started a Web site, www.stopcolumbiagas.com, to keep the communities in the pipeline’s path informed on Columbia’s plans. Bass said his mission is to warn those communities, in particular Reston and Great Falls, of what is coming to them, in his prediction, in early 2008. He said Columbia has already done some tree cutting in Great Falls, around the River Bend Park area and that Reston is next on its agenda. He was scheduled to make a presentation to the Great Falls Citizens Association Environmental Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 5, but the meeting was cancelled due to inclement weather. Great Falls is where Bass grew up and works, graduating from Langley High School in 1993 and teaching history at the same school since 1999.

Archer said it has not yet been decided whether the company will do any work in the "Reston-Herndon-Dranesville" area in 2008. He said a company-wide — NiSource owns 17,000 miles of pipelines from Louisiana to Maine — budgeting process determines where maintenance will occur. He expects there would be funding for local maintenance projects in 2008, but that would not be confirmed until the end of the first quarter of the year. He added that maintenance work is typically not performed in wintertime, and that the preferred schedule is late summer and into the early fall.

Great Falls Citizens Association Environmental Committee co-chair, Robin Rentsch, said the committee hopes to hear from both sides, a citizen presentation and a presentation from the Columbia Gas Transmission representative on the company’s plans in the Great Falls area.

"THE OBVIOUS thing is environmental," said Bass. Carbon emissions, other pollution, runoff and animal habitat are some of the reasons Bass is advocating for trees to remain standing, even though ones by his property are gone. "There’s a whole list of what good a tree can do," he said.

Archer said the pipelines in questions were installed in the 1950s, before most of Reston and Herndon was built. He said operating practices and regulations request the company to clearly delineate the right-of-way, have easy access to pipelines and an ability to inspect them from the ground and air. He said that by far the largest incidence with pipelines is third-party damage. "People digging in without knowing" they are digging into a pipeline. "It is a transient area. Often times there is not a high level of awareness of what the utilities are in the area," said Archer.