Residents tell Vermont Gas to slow down on pipeline push
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Gas Systems officials on Monday asked for public feedback on their proposed “Phase II” pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
What those officials heard, from a crowd of around 70 people who attended the informational meeting at Middlebury’s municipal gym, could be distilled into two words: “Slow down.”
That admonition came in reaction to Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark’s confirmation that the South Burlington company plans to pick a route for the proposed 24-mile paper mill pipeline by the end of May, in anticipation of requesting a state certificate of public good for the $70 million project by late this summer.
Meanwhile, residents of the three communities the pipeline would bisect — Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham — are concerned that Vermont Gas’ timeline will not allow them enough time to react to construction that could go through their yards, and without the possibility of tapping into that natural gas.
“You are not communicating with people; you are really doing a lousy job,” Middlebury resident Victoria DeWind told Vermont Gas officials. “You have got to slow down this process.”
It is a process that is tied to the company’s “Phase I” plan, a $92 million, 41-mile pipeline segment that would extend from Chittenden County into Middlebury and Vergennes. That phase is currently under review by the Public Service Board. Vermont Gas officials are hoping for swift approval in order to get the project under way for delivery of gas to Middlebury’s Exchange Street area by next year. Officials would then extend natural gas service to other areas of Middlebury and Vergennes by 2015.
Once the Phase 1 project is complete, Vermont Gas wants to build the separate, Phase II pipeline segment from Middlebury to I.P. That $50 million project, to be subsidized by the paper mill, would take fuel oil out of I.P.’s fuel stream and replace it with cheaper and more environmentally friendly natural gas. It would also get the pipeline closer to Rutland County — a long-term VGS goal.
But some Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham residents are arguing that I.P.’s fuel cost savings could cause considerable headaches. Along with construction disruption and the prospect of having a volatile gas flowing through their properties, they noted limitations on vegetation that can be grown on the 50-foot right-of-way under which the 12-inch natural gas transmission line would flow.
Some residents located within potential Phase II pipeline routes being scouted by Vermont Gas are already reporting some concerns about the manner in which their property is being surveyed.
Middlebury resident Chris Zeoli noted the remnants of survey markers on his South Street Extension property several days after Vermont Gas crews left.
“How are we supposed to trust you on more important things?” Zeoli asked. “It’s something as simple as picking up after yourselves, and you haven’t done that yet.”
Wark acknowledged some early hitches in Vermont Gas’ outreach efforts, but pledged a smoother process going forward. He unveiled two possible “Phase II” lateral pipeline extension options from Middlebury. Both depart from an area near the intersection of Foote Street and Route 7 South, then head directly west until hitting Middle Road North. Form there, one of the potential routes zigzags in a southwesterly direction before passing into Cornwall in the vicinity of Morse Road. The other potential route proceeds in a straighter, slightly southwesterly direction across Creek Road, South Street Extension and into Cornwall near Route 30. Vermont Gas engineers said directional borings will allow the pipeline to go under waterways, including Lake Champlain.
Wark said if the project is approved, it will need to be routed in consideration of topography, wetlands, ledge, rock, settlement patterns, utilities and alignment.
“Straighter is better,” he said, noting costs of around $1.5 to $2 million per mile of pipeline, which would be placed into trenches around 5 feet deep.
Plans call for affected landowners to first be sent a letter, followed by a phone call or personal visit with a formal request for property access. In cases where access is denied, the company will have to chart the possible course of the pipeline using maps, according to Wark. It will be up to Vermont Gas to negotiate easements for property along the route. Failing that, the company could resort to exercising eminent domain, which would allow the company to take property if it successfully agues that the project is in the public’s interests. Wark has said the pipeline infrastructure will be subject to property taxes, and that Vermont Gas will consider extending service to the more densely populated village centers of Cornwall and Shoreham.
Vermont Gas, according to Wark, has yet to pick a specific route for the Phase II pipeline. The company will hold a second informational meeting in Middlebury on April 15 (7-9 p.m. at the municipal gym) and will hold similar gatherings in Cornwall and Shoreham.
Several residents said they believe more outreach will be needed.
“A couple of meetings doesn’t seem like enough,” said Middlebury resident Alice Eckles, who suggested that Vermont Gas officials go door to door within the pipeline corridor to explain the project and get feedback. Wark said the company would consider that request.
Cornwall resident Stan Grzyb said many in his town oppose the proposed pipeline. Concerns, he said, include the prospect of the transmission line causing disruption to deer yards as well as orchards, sugarbushes and other rural enterprises. And Grzyb said he did not relish the prospect of have a natural gas transmission line flowing near the barn where he works.
“All of these things add into why a lot of us don’t want anything to do with it,” Grzyb said.
While Vermont Gas is a state-regulated utility, Grzyb pointed to a corporate ownership structure that includes the much larger Canadian companies of Gaz Métro and Enbridge Inc. He noted Enbridge is involved in projects to develop and transport tar sands fuel.
“I think all of us need to be aware of these manifestations of large companies trying to ram this down our throat,” Grzyb said.
Wark said the company will do its best to work with neighbors, but added, “At the end of the day, we have to pick a line, and we are hoping to do that with good feedback from residents.”
One participant at Monday’s meeting suggested that some additional strings be attached to I.P.’s bid to get a natural gas pipeline. Specifically, he said the paper company should be required to purchase and install more sophisticated pollution control devices at its plant before it is given access to the pipeline. He noted I.P., around a decade ago, proposed adding shredded tires to its fuel mix.
“I look at this as an opportunity for this area,” he said. “I.P. … has felt free to flush its industrial toilet into a lake now filled with dioxins and PCPs. You can’t eat the fish. It has sent, primarily with prevailing winds, its pollutants to Vermont. To filter for the rest of New England … This may be a time for Vermont Gas to rescue us, to say to I.P., ‘Those people in Vermont will let you build that line and will become partners in that effort, if you clean up your air.’ So part of the money they save on energy costs goes to installing the very latest technologies in air cleaning.”
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, is a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, as well as owner of Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee Co. He said he believes natural gas would be an asset in providing some financial relief not only to I.P., but also to area homeowners and business owners. He added that because natural gas is currently 44 percent cheaper than fuel oil, it could stretch the state’s heating assistance subsidy that much further for low-income Vermonters.
“Let’s remember that there are other people who are going to benefit from this project,” Ralston said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
Editor’s note: A comment from a person at the meeting stating that IP put mercury in the air that originally appeared in this story has been taken out because that person contacted the Independent and said he had made a mistake reading the data and now believes that Internation Paper does not release mercury from its smokestacks.
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