Major power upgrade diverts creek in city

VERGENNES — The loudest phase of Green Mountain Power Corp’s major project to rebuild parts of its Vergennes dam was set to start Monday morning, when demolition experts will begin what is expected to be about two weeks of a half-dozen blasts a day to clear out bedrock to allow replacement of what company officials call decaying piping.
Traffic on West Main Street will be stopped when blasting occurs, and motorists can expect delays.
The $3-million-plus project began in May with the construction of temporary dams both above and below the west side of the Otter Creek falls.
Workers then laid in stone roadbeds on the river bottom, one running under the bridge from a parking lot at the end of the bridge, and one reaching the falls from GMP’s substation off Canal Street. A half-dozen pieces of stone-cutting and crushing equipment with tank-like treads roll on those roads to reach over the falls on typical work day, while the towering crane that has become a site fixture uses the low road.
GMP power generation leader Charlie Pughe said the major elements being replaced are the dam’s “headworks,” which divert water stopped by the dam that stretches across Otter Creek, and the penstocks, steel tubes close to six feet in diameter that bring the river water to the two power-generating turbines at GMP’s plant.
Those headworks and penstocks are among elements put in place in 1914, and have reached the end of their useful life, Pughe said.
But despite the price tag, the expected long life of a facility that can power about 1,265 homes a year makes the project worth the money, Pughe said.
“It’s an excellent investment because the payback on it is for a very long time,” he said of a project that has a November completion target date.
GMP spokeswoman Dottie Schnure said GMP gets almost 8 percent of its power from its hydroelectric plants, and that electricity is “by far” the cheapest to produce and the most friendly to the environment.
“It’s the cleanest power we have. It’s a very good investment to keep them up and running,” Schnure said.
Monday’s morning’s first blast was set for 10 a.m. Schnure described it as a test to make sure that calculations arrived at with the help of consultants and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation were correct and that the explosions would not damage nearby historic buildings, including the Grist and Shade Roller mills and the city-owned Pump House.
“We’re doing a test blast on Monday to determine that in fact is what happens,” Pughe said.
The owner-occupants of the Grist Mill and Shade Roller Mill have criticized the project, however. Ferrisburgh resident David Shlansky runs the corporations that own both those buildings, including Burchfield Resources LLC in the Grist Mill.
In a July 22 email to Vergennes City Manager and zoning administrator Mel Hawley, Burchfield vice president Andrew Gill questioned whether the project was a repair or an expansion of the facility, an issue that could determine whether a permit is needed; whether GMP had blocked access to information; and whether the city should require GMP to get a local permit.
Gill characterized the project as a “large-scale deconstruction and rebuilding of the hydroelectric facility,” and stated that that “characterizing it as ‘Repair or Maintenance’ … allowed (GMP) to avoid public notice.”
Gill wrote, “Although there is removal or riverbed, bedrock, and other materials going on, and the apparent extension of the facility into the publicly owned, adjacent creek, (GMP) has represented to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it is not conducting an ‘Alteration,’ which requires a higher level of regulatory and public scrutiny.”
Schnure said the company fully revealed its plans to FERC, which grants licenses to operate local hydroelectric facilities; the Vermont Department of Public Service; and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. She said officials all signed off on the project.
“They’re fully informed with exactly what we’re doing, and a specific permit is not needed because it is repair work,” Schnure said. “We are in compliance with all regulatory requirements.”
Gill also referred to a section of GMP’s 1999 FERC license that stated, “material unnecessary for the purposes of the project which results from the maintenance or alteration of project works” must be disposed of “in accordance with appropriate local statutes and regulations.”
Therefore, he wrote, work constituted “land development” under Vergennes zoning laws because the public owns the riverbed, and a permit process with public hearings is required.
Gill asked Hawley to consider moving against the project: “Please advise us immediately if the city intends to take enforcement action with regard to these regulations.”
Hawley said he ruled a year ago as zoning administrator that the work was maintenance, which is exempt under the city’s zoning laws. He also said that it is unclear if the city has any authority regardless of the nature of the work.
“The other issue is whether the city has jurisdiction, anyway … if this is not considered maintenance and repair,” he said.
Hawley said he forwarded the email to both the city attorney and to GMP for review.
Gill also claimed that “every attempt over the course of over a month to obtain relevant FERC documents that describe the scope of (GMP’s) excavation of the falls and riverbed have been stymied.”
Schnure said rules established after the terrorist attacks in 2001 limit what GMP can disclose.
“The federal government put the rules into place after 9-11 to protect critical infrastructure,” she said. “We have indicated to the parties that they can apply to the FERC for access to … documents, but they need to go through FERC procedures. I am not aware of any attempt to block them from obtaining documents from the FERC through proper channels.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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