MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Regional Planning Commission on Jan. 9 peppered a Vermont Gas Systems executive with questions about the “Phase II” pipeline project.
Vermont Gas, of South Burlington, as proposed the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, a natural gas pipeline that would stretch from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes in Phase I and from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y., in Phase II. The regional planning commission and the Vermont Public Service Board have already endorsed Phase I, but Vermont Gas is looking from the regional planning commission’s endorsement of Phase II to help in its effort to gain the Public Service Board’s approval for Phase II.
The commission invited Eileen Simollardes, vice president of Supply and Regulatory Affairs for Vermont Gas, for an hour-long discussion about the project. The ACRPC has yet to decide whether or not to endorse the project.
The back-and-forth between Simollardes and commission members grew tense at times, particularly when Simollardes told the group she had not prepared answers to a list of questions members had sent her in December.
“We put together a list of questions — you’ll get to those tonight?” Lincoln delegate Steve Revell asked at the beginning of the discussion.
Simollardes said it was her intention to provide written responses to the questions at a later date. She cited vacation time over the holidays and the fact that she was unable to meet with company attorneys to go over the questions as reasons she was unable to provide answers at the meeting this past Thursday.
“We desperately need those questions answered, otherwise it’s extremely difficult to find out where we fit,” Revell responded, referring to how the pipeline project fits into the county plan.
Chico Martin of Bristol rose and asked if the commission if it was best to adjourn until Simollardes had answers to their questions. Executive Director Adam Lougee stated that was a possibility, but suggested the body make the best use of the time, since it had invited Simollardes to attend.
“I had no intention to put anyone off,” Simollardes said.
“You have to take it seriously,” Stan Grzyb of Cornwall interjected.
“I’m sorry I left the impression I don’t take it seriously,” Simollardes said.
“We wanted to be able to view your answers,” Grzyb said.
“I apologize, and I offered not to come tonight. If I’m wasting people’s time, I apologize,” Simollardes said.
Simollardes said she would answer questions in person to the best of her ability, but cautioned that if any of her answers inadvertently contradicted testimony by Vermont Gas Systems officials, they should be disregarded.
Grzyb asked how the Phase II project fit into the county plan, and cited a section of the document that deals with energy sources. That section states, “It is our objective for no large-scale generation or transmission facilities, which have as their primary purpose providing energy to markets outside the Addison Region, to be constructed or expanded in the region.”
Grzyb noted that most of the gas that would run through the pipeline would go to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
In her response, Simollardes did not address that clause, but said that the benefits of the project would be threefold — it would benefit air quality by decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere to the tune of 1 million tons over 20 years, lower natural gas rates for residents and businesses, and economically benefit Rutland, which in turn would benefit Addison County.
She stated that International Paper would contribute $45 million to the project, subsidizing the cost of the pipeline to taxpayers.
Simollardes praised the Public Service Board’s Dec. 23 issuance of a Certificate of Public Good for Phase I of the project, and said that the pipeline, by replacing oil as the source of energy for many homes and businesses, was “likely to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in Addison County.”
Just before the conclusion of the discussion with Simollardes, Jamie Stewart of the Rutland Economic Development Corporation spoke in support of the project, stating that it would slash energy costs for the Agri-Mark plant in Middlebury and the Omya plant in Rutland County, which Stewart said used the most energy of any plant in the state after the IBM plant in Essex Junction.
In the brief intermission between the discussion with Simollardes and the regular commission meeting, the Independent spoke with several members of the commission.
Revell expressed disappointment with the quality of the discussion with Vermont Gas executive.
“We need to move on, communities need to make decisions,” Revell said. “If we’re gonna need to intervene, we need answers — this did not get us to a point where we would have liked to have been.”
Martin echoed a similar sentiment.
“We have a committee that developed a list of questions, and that’s what we were expecting to be answered,” Martin said.
Grzyb described the commission’s time with Simollardes as “absolutely worthless.”
“It was extremely unproductive. Our goal is to discover the facts and make a responsible decision — we wanted her here to review her answers,” he said. “We have to make a decision.”
Jim Duclos of Cornwall said he did not understand how Simollardes could believe that the Phase II project conforms with the regional plan.
“She has already told the Public Service Board that it does,” Duclos said. “I can’t believe the audacity of that statement.”
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
After Simollardes left, the commission moved to its regular meeting agenda, which included a discussion of the body’s conflict of interest policy.
The group decided that the policy, as defined by the bylaws, was adequate and did not need to be amended. The policy states that members should recuse themselves if they believe they have a conflict of interest. If a member is unsure, he or she can disclose the potential conflict to the entire body, which would then debate and vote whether the member must recuse himself or herself.
Benjamin Marks, a resident of Cornwall and attorney representing the town in the pipeline project, cautioned members of the commission, especially those who support the pipeline, that they should recuse themselves if there is a possibility, however remote, they that may have a conflict of interest.
If they did not, Marks said he would challenge conflicts of interest in court.
“If there are deficiencies, I am bound as an attorney to exploit those deficiencies,” Marks said.
Several members of the commission said they felt that Marks’ statements were akin to a threat, and that they were unaware of the purpose of his presence at the meeting.
“I don’t appreciate the threat from Cornwall that they would litigate,” Revell said.
A member of the commission suggested that at future meetings members of the public be required to identify themselves. The commission took no action on that suggestion.
Bill Sayre of Bristol voluntarily recused himself from further discussions or votes pertaining to the pipeline project, citing his relationship with Vermont Gas Systems. Sayre was chairman of board of CVPS, a power company bought in 2011 by GazMetro, which also owns Vermont Gas.
“On this issue I’ve had little to say, and have only spoken when there was a question about a fact,” Sayre told the commission. “I don’t want to become a distraction or a diversion, so I will recuse myself out of an abundance of caution.”
Harvey Smith of New Haven disclosed a potential conflict of interest. He said Vermont Gas Systems had approached him to use five acres of his land for the pipeline, for a fee. This would be part of the Phase I project, not Phase II.
Smith said he did not believe he had a conflict of interest, but left it to the commission to decide whether or not he must recuse himself.
In the ensuing debate, several members said they did not believe Smith’s judgment would be clouded by his potential business transaction with Vermont Gas Systems, but said he should recuse himself to eliminate and semblance of conflict of interest that could later be used against the commission in court. Other members disagreed.
A motion to end debate and put the issue to a vote failed. A subsequent motion to table the discussion until the next meeting was approved, 9-7.