By Dharna Noor

UPDATE: A bill has just been introduced by Montgomery County’s Delegate Shane Robinson. The emergency legislation (HB1826) would require an independent review of all permit application for the construction of gas pipelines or drilling in karst geology. To complete the review processes for pending applications, Maryland Department of the Environment would be required to deny the application without prejudice.

Jean Cushman is one of five woman who were arrested on the steps of the Maryland State House last week. After standing in the cold and singing “We Shall Overcome” for two hours, they were handcuffed and driven to a nearby police station.

“It was pretty cold out and we saw some snow. The wind was blowing quite a lot – it was not comfortable,” she said.

The five expected to be arrested sooner. “We think the reason that it took so long to arrest us is because Governor Hogan didn’t like the optics of arresting women with gray hair who have children and/or grandchildren,” Cushman said.

The women were protesting the routing of a natural gas pipeline through western Maryland, beneath the Potomac River. Despite this action and others on the part of environmental advocates, two days later, Maryland officials issued a permit for the Columbia Pipeline to TransCanada, the company known for its Keystone XL Pipeline.

Cushman said this news came as no surprise. “I don’t think we’d expect a lot of concern about safety from [Maryland Department of Energy Secretary] Ben Grumbles.”

The Maryland Department of Energy has said it will subject the pipeline to “special environmental conditions” to protect land and drinking water. In a statement, the agency said:

“After a year of robust, public review, the state is insisting on extra precautions and safeguards. Our state permit is strong and balanced, adding almost two dozen environmental conditions, many of which go above and beyond what the Army Corps and FERC would typically include, while also recognizing that natural gas has a role in meeting state and regional energy needs,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. “The bottom line is that this pipeline will not get built if the applicant doesn’t comply with our many requirements, regardless of what the federal agencies ultimately decide.”

But advocates from Chesapeake Climate Action Network have said these measures are not enough to protect the Potomac River, which over 6 million people rely on for drinking water. “While we are still reviewing the permit, we question whether the conditions under the state’s Wetlands and Waterways permit are even enforceable,” they said. “We also question whether they are sufficient to protect the state’s waters, given the sensitive geology and the potential impacts to the treasured Potomac River.”

They added that “the state should have pursued a more powerful 401 certification under the Clean Water Act, which would have looked at the project holistically and would have put the burden on TransCanada to prove that the project won’t harm water quality.”

Food and Water Watch organizer Rianna Eckel said the Clean Water Act could have been used to reject the permit. “Under section 401 of the Clean Water Act, Maryland has the authority to reject a permit if after a 401 certification process, it is determined that the project will be detrimental to the State’s waterways,” she said in an email to The Real News.

“Their ‘special conditions’ are really just greenwashing a decision by the Governor to lock us in to fossil fuel infrastructure, further climate chaos and go back on his promise to protect Marylanders from the threats posed by fracking,” Eckel wrote.

TransCanada plans to use a trenchless, horizontal drilling method which they claim is safe. “It is an environmentally friendly method used across sensitive areas that significantly reduces impact to the land above the drilling site and surrounding communities,” they said in a video.

But Eckel said that trenchless drilling does not mean safe drilling.

“Recently while laying the Rover Pipeline in Ohio using HDD, 150,000 gallons of drilling fluids were released into the surrounding wetlands. This same pipeline spilled 2 million gallons of drilling fluid last April,” she said. “The site where the Potomac Pipeline will be built is karst geology, which is especially porous. Essentially, this spells disaster. A spill or leak using HDD would release drilling fluids or other industrial chemicals into the water source for 6 million people.”

“Who wants to drink toxic water?,” Cushman asked. “Hand a glass of that to Governor Hogan and ask him how it tastes. And I’m sure he wouldn’t take a drink of it. I’m sure Ben Grumbles wouldn’t either.”

Photo credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.