Forest Glen woman fights to protect trees from natural gas
Community activist believes leaks are responsible for damage throughout neighborhood
While walking through her Forest Glen neighborhood this summer, Barbara Schubert began to notice an unusual number of sick and dying trees lining the wooded streets.
The brown, barren patches where grass once grew near the tree bases didn't seem quite right. She didn't act on her observations until late August, when she read about a similar problem near Boston.
Nine towns in the Boston area are taking legal action against a gas company to compensate them for damage to trees on public land that they claim is caused by natural gas leaks.
"There's no question that this problem is all over the place, wherever there are old pipes," Schubert said.
Now, after months of wading through government and private-sector bureaucracy, Schubert feels some satisfaction Washington Gas is working to replace the pipes in her neighborhood, a project that a spokesman said began before Schubert contacted the company.
"Washington Gas has been working on it; they've been working on and off," Schubert said. "If we're patient, I'm certain we'll get our pipes fixed. The damage has been done."
At least 17 damaged trees remain and Schubert is working to get them replaced.
A resident's struggle
Schubert's first effort in August was to contact Bob Ackley, president of Gas Safety USA, the Southborough, Mass. company that assessed gas leaks in the Boston-area towns.
"I told him I was very interested in this and I had decided that we had the same problem [in Forest Glen]," Schubert said. "It was just so obvious when you looked at the fact that we had gas leaks for years and years and years."
Ackley, with 30 years of gas detection experience, drove to Maryland to check out the situation. Using a flame ionization detector a device that senses organic substances composed of hydrogen and carbon he identified 17 trees exposed to natural gas leaks at 10 locations in Forest Glen. Those locations include Covington Road, Newcastle Avenue, Woodley Avenue, Wilton Avenue and Woodstock Avenue.
"Any gas in the root zone of a tree, it doesn't necessarily damage the trees right away," Ackley said. "But it has the potential to damage the tree."
Ruben Rodriguez, director of corporate communications for Washington Gas, wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette this week that a gas line replacement program has been under way in parts of Forest Glen since a few weeks before Schubert contacted the company. After hearing from her and inspecting the areas she pointed out, the project was extended to include the entire neighborhood.
Rodriguez did not provide the cost of the project or say when it would be completed. He also did not address whether natural gas can harm trees.
In an Oct. 6 meeting between Schubert and county officials to discuss the issue, Brett Linkletter, chief of tree maintenance for the county's Department of Transportation, said that gas leaks definitely sicken trees and contribute to their loss, but that it is difficult to prove gas leaks are the principal cause of the death of a specific tree. He noted that the repair of gas leaks also contributes to tree loss because tree roots close to and entangled in gas lines are damaged.
Schubert has met with representatives from the department, which is responsible for replacing trees, and believes progress is being made toward planting new ones.
Jumping through hoops
In August, after Ackley told her about the presence of natural gas, Schubert, backed by neighbors, set out to make things right. Her first stop: county government.
Schubert began with her representative on the County Council, President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5). Ervin's office put her in touch with the county Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Transportation.
Schubert also contacted the Maryland Public Service Commission and wrote a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley. The commission checks to see if utility companies are following regulations and told Schubert that Washington Gas had, in fact, followed all regulations, she said.
"As a citizen, you have to go through hoop after hoop after hoop until you've exhausted all of the things," Schubert said. "I've done that. I'm patient about it. I'll do it. But I contend that I'm not going to get any kind of resolution to this because it's a brand new idea."
Schubert said even though Washington Gas is fixing pipes in her neighborhood, it should also take a look at surrounding areas. After Ackley tested the Forest Glen neighborhood, he did random tests in the Woodland neighborhood and on 16th Street, finding leaks at four trees in four locations.
This, he said, could become costly for local governments.
"The cities and towns ... they're the ones who are going to have to remove the trees when they're dead," Ackley said. "And that's the real cost."