Foresters concerned about ECI plans for natural gas

Dorchester Banner/Dave Ryan
This map provided by the Maryland Forests Association shows sites from which wood chips were harvested for Eastern Correctional Institution from 2015-2019.

CAMBRIDGE — Delmarva foresters are worried about the possible loss of one their biggest markets. Members of the Dorchester County Council heard a presentation Sept. 3 from representatives of the Maryland Forests Association (AFI), who told them that the planned conversion of the Eastern Correctional Institution’s (ECI) energy production from mostly wood chips to natural gas would result in severe consequences for their industry.

ECI is Maryland’s largest prison, with an inmate population of about 3,300. It is located in Westover, in Somerset County.

A pipeline proposed by Chesapeake Utilities Corporation would extend service from Salisbury to Eden. The move is supported by elected officials in Somerset County.

Natural gas supports “continued economic growth in Somerset County,” County Administrator Doug Taylor said in an April 3 statement released by the Somerset County Economic Development Corporation. The U.S. 13 corridor in particular “is ripe for development” and natural gas “is a win-win for our struggling county,” he said, calling it “a priority for many years.”

Administrators at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore have expressed their approval of the plan. UMES currently uses a mix of fuel oil and propane for its heating system. President Heidi M. Anderson said the move would allow the campus to use gas, making it more environmentally friendly.

But at the Dorchester County Council meeting on Sept. 3, Forester Consultant Joe Hinson said he was not aware of any opportunity for public comment before the project was approved early this year.

In a document from a July 29 meeting with state officials, the AFI said, “We request the governor to reconsider this ill-advised decision — not because we are opposed to the gas line on the Lower Shore per se, but because of the seemingly overlooked detrimental economic/environmental consequences linked to conversion.”

Material presented to the council by the AFI said if the conversion takes place, 65 jobs and $7 million in economic activity in the region would be lost. A map displayed during the meeting showed dozens of sites on Delmarva that have provided timber for chips over the past four years.

Much of the issue for landowners is that forests need to be thinned to be healthy. Also, forestry operations require high-quality timber for their more valuable products — but it is not profitable to take only the best timber from an area.

The chips used in ECI’s boilers are from low-value wood, which still has an important role in making a property viable. “ECI is the glue that holds that together,” Mr. Hinson said. “The forest that pays is the forest that stays.”
County Council Member Libby Nagel has been involved in talks with the AFI. During the Sept. 3 meeting, she disclosed her interest, saying, “I own 1,000 acres of forest.”

The AFI presentation for informational purposes. There was no vote taken.

Dave Ryan is editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at dryan@newszap.com.

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