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Regulators will seek input on pipeline plan at Tuesday hearing

MIDDLEBURY — Supporters and critics of a $70 million plan to extend a natural gas pipeline 43 miles from Colchester into Middlebury and Vergennes will have a chance to state their views at the Vermont Public Service Board’s second (and final) scheduled public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 10, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Middlebury Union Middle School gym at 48 Deerfield Lane.
The PSB will consider the feedback in its deliberations on whether to issue Vermont Gas Systems the certificate of public good it needs to pursue the pipeline project. If OK’d, the pipeline could start providing natural gas to businesses in Middlebury’s industrial park by late next year, with other residential and commercial customers in the most densely populated areas of Middlebury and Vergennes — and eventually portions of Bristol, Monkton, East Middlebury and New Haven — to be phased in during the ensuing few years.
Supporters, which include several county businesses and Middlebury College, want the opportunity to access natural gas, which as of Nov. 1 will be 51 percent cheaper than fuel oil and 54 percent less costly than propane, according to a 5.86-percent rate reduction announced on Tuesday by Vermont Gas. Officials at the South Burlington company contend natural gas expansion into Addison County “will save customers $200 million over 20 years,” while serving as an economic development tool to help area businesses create and retain jobs.
Vermont Gas officials since last year have held several public meetings in affected communities to receive feedback from landowners and town officials. The proposed underground pipeline would travel through the Addison County communities of Monkton and New Haven en route to Middlebury. Work would include construction of three new gate stations in Williston, New Haven and Middlebury. The New Haven gate station would be the starting point of a distribution line to Vergennes.
Critics of the pipeline include some landowners who don’t want to see their property dug up for a pipeline that would carry volatile natural gas. The pipeline will require a right-of-way easement on which no large trees can be grown, which is another point of contention with some landowners.
The pipeline is also facing opposition from environmental groups and activists who object to the notion of “fracked” gas from Canada being funneled into Vermont. Vermont Gas is owned by the Canadian company Gaz Metro. The natural gas reserves in question are being largely sourced in the Canadian province of Alberta. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process through which highly pressured water and chemicals are used to open fissures in the ground to access pockets of natural gas.
Environmental groups are also concerned that access to cheaper natural gas will stunt local efforts to develop more forms of renewable energy.
It should be noted that the Sept. 10 public hearing will not deal with a separate “phase two” Vermont Gas project still in development stages that calls for a pipeline to be extended from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. No formal PSB public hearings for phase two have been set.
The purpose of the Sept. 10 public hearing is for the PSB to hear comments and concerns from the public regarding the phase one project. All comments will be transcribed by a court reporter for later reference and will become part of the public file for the case, according to Sue Hudson, clerk of the PSB.
Comments made at the public hearing do not become part of the evidentiary record. Vermont law requires that the board’s decision be based upon the evidence presented by formal parties at the technical hearings, which, in this case, start on Sept. 16. However, public comments play an important role by raising new issues or offering perspectives that the PSB should consider and ask parties to address with evidence, according to Hudson.
Because those with party status in the case — including interveners — will have opportunities during and after the technical hearings to present their positions, no party or representative of a party will be permitted to make comments at the public hearing, Hudson said. Members of the public who want to speak will be required to enter their name and town of residence on a sign-up sheet at the hearing location. Each prospective speaker must sign up individually and in person. Board staff will be present in the MUMS gym beginning at 6:30 p.m. to assist with sign-ups.
Because interest in this case is widespread and many people are likely to attend the public hearing, the PSB will likely have to limit each speaker to a time of two minutes, according to Hudson. The board is therefore encouraging members of the public, including those who speak at the upcoming hearing, to submit their comments in writing. These written submissions will become part of the public file in this docket and are not subject to length limits.
The PSB conducted its first public hearing on the Vermont Gas project back in March, in Hinesburg.
Anyone can access details about the case — including pre-filed testimony and exhibits — by logging on to http://psb.vermont.gov/docketsandprojects/gas/7970. The case is under PSB docket number 7970.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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