Natural gas pipeline project advances

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Gas Systems next month will ask the state utility regulator, the Public Service Board, to review plans for its proposed pipeline expansion into Middlebury and Vergennes. In the meantime it will begin contacting the owners of around 200 parcels through which the new conduit would travel.
Vermont Gas officials gave these and other project details to a crowd of more than 60 people who gathered on Thursday evening at the Middlebury Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7823 to hear about how the estimated $70 million, 42-mile pipeline project might affect their heating bills, insurance rates, property values and safety.
Using maps, charts and graphics, Vermont Gas spokesman Stephen Wark told the crowd that the proposed pipeline would all be placed underground in an environmentally sensitive manner in order to bring what he said are abundant Canadian natural gas reserves to the most densely occupied residential and business sectors of Middlebury and Vergennes.
The company estimates that the project, if permitted and built out as planned by 2015, would save the approximately 2,100 eligible residential and business customers in Middlebury a combined total of $5 million per year compared to what they are currently paying for fuel oil. That number, Wark said, envisions a 60-percent sign-up rate.
But a lot of work will need to be done before the pipeline project can go forward, Wark stressed.
“It will be an expensive and rigorous construction process,” he said.
“We want to be good neighbors as we do this,” he added. “There is no place for shortcuts.”
In serious planning for the past two years, the Addison Natural Gas Project will involve:
•  The laying of approximately 42 miles of new 12-inch-diameter pipeline from Vermont Gas’s existing mainline off Route 2 in Colchester to Middlebury’s Exchange Street.
•  The placement of around five miles of new 6-inch distribution mainlines that will extend into Vergennes and Middlebury.
•  Construction of three new gate stations, where the natural gas is to be depressurized (from 600 pounds per square inch) and heated from the mainline so that it can be safely funneled to the individual customer connections. The gate stations, to feature what Wark said would be one or two small buildings in a fenced-in compound, would be located off Route 2 in Williston; south of Plank Road in New Haven; and south of the Route 7 intersection with Exchange Street in Middlebury.
Wark confirmed additional, less refined plans to construct an additional 10.5-mile transmission line segment south of Middlebury, heading west and under Lake Champlain, to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. And Wark acknowledged that Vermont Gas’s long-term vision is to extend the Addison County pipeline into Rutland County and New York, to connect with domestic natural gas sources to provide redundancy for the system.
Long-term expansion of the system will be predicated by finances, Wark stressed. Vermont Gas is a utility, regulated by the Public Service Board. Wark said it costs roughly $1.7 million per mile of new transmission line, and approximately $370,000 per mile of (narrower) distribution line. With that in mind, Vermont Gas — established in 1965 with customers in Franklin and Chittenden counties — tends to limit its expansion to areas in which there are large pockets of prospective customers. Its most recent forays have been into Jericho, Underhill, Hinesburg and Richmond.
Reaching those communities has meant laying pipe through, and under, some tricky terrain, according to Wark and Jean-March Teixeira, vice president of operations at Vermont Gas. Teixeira, also present at Thursday’s meeting, noted the company has often had to drill or blast through solid rock or ledge in order to place its pipe within a designated route. And Vermont Gas has also strung its pipe several feet under the Mississquoi, Lamoille and Winooski rivers using a technique called horizontal directional drilling, something that will have to be done under Lake Champlain in order to feed the International Paper mill.
Teixeira said company officials have already been sizing up the land along the proposed Addison Natural Gas Project route. Responding to questions from the audience, Teixeira and Wark said the proposed transmission pipeline:
•  Would require a 50-foot right of way that will largely, in Addison County, follow the existing Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) right of way. Wark that stressed Vermont Gas will have to negotiate separate easement agreements with all property owners along the corridor, as the VELCO easement only provides for electric conduit, not natural gas.
•  Vermont Gas will ask for property owners’ permission before exploring individual parcels, and will seek to negotiate easement fees based on market rate real estate values. He said the company can pursue eminent domain action against property owners who are unwilling to negotiate an easement.
“It is a process we hope not to use,” Wark said. “We hope it will not come to that.”
•  The company would have no objection to light recreation (such as snowmobiling or hunting) continuing on any of its right-of-ways. But Vermont Gas will not allow digging or heavy, turf-chewing vehicles to go on the property for fear of damaging the pipeline buried three to four feet underneath.
•  Based on their own research with insurance agents and Realtors, Wark said Vermont Gas does not see evidence that the project would decrease property values or inflate insurance premiums for landowners affected by the pipeline.
Wark acknowledged that while the majority of Vermont Gas’s infrastructure will be located underground, the gate stations might be visible. Middlebury Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm voiced concerns about the appearance of a Middlebury gate station that would potentially feature a substantial amount of asphalt and fencing.
“We are pretty sensitive here about how things look,” Malcolm said.
Wark replied that Vermont Gas would use an “aesthetics consultant” to mitigate any impacts of the gate stations on the host town’s view shed. And he said the company would try to locate the facility in a wooded area where it would be less obtrusive.
Participants at Thursday’s meeting also voiced concerns about the explosiveness of natural gas and the resulting potential for disasters, as well as the controversial practice of “hydrofracking” to extract gas from underground.
Teixeira said Vermont Gas has recorded only a handful of leaks and but one substantial accident since the company was established in 1965. The accident involved a clump of ice that fell off a roof and sheared a meter, resulting in natural gas igniting and burning the home. No one was injured in that Chittenden County incident, he said.
Teixeira added that Vermont Gas’s lines are made of either steel featuring a corrosion-proof coating, or polyethylene, and are therefore durable and resistant to breaks. The pipelines, he said, are regularly inspected.
Wark acknowledged concerns about hydrofracking, a practice he said involves using highly pressurized water and chemicals to free hard-to-get-at pockets of natural gas from the ground. He said Vermont Gas only distributes the gas and does not play a role in its production. He said he believes only a small percentage of the Canadian natural gas the company is distributing has been produced through fracking.
Addison County residents will continue to be kept abreast of the project through community meetings during the coming months, Wark said. The Army Corps of Engineers, state of Vermont and local communities affected by the pipeline will (along with the Public Service Board) also be reviewing various aspects of the project, Wark added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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