Cornwall appeals to Shumlin on pipeline
CORNWALL — The Cornwall selectboard has asked the Shumlin Administration to oppose the proposed Vermont Gas Systems pipeline from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., and instead work with VGS on a financing plan to plot a pipeline route directly from Middlebury south to Rutland.
The letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin, dated Oct. 2 and signed by all five selectboard members, is Cornwall’s most emphatic message thus far in signaling its opposition to Vermont Gas’ proposed “Phase II” pipeline that would extend from Middlebury through Cornwall and Shoreham and underneath Lake Champlain to IP’s Ticonderoga mill. International Paper would underwrite the entire $70 million cost of the pipeline, capital that Vermont Gas could invest in its ongoing effort to extend natural gas service to the southern part of the state.
The first phase of its project, a pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes, is currently under review by the Vermont Public Service Board. Vermont Gas last week formally launched its application process for Phase II. Officials at VGS have stated that a major selling point for the Phase II project is that it would get natural gas infrastructure 17 miles closer to Rutland, a community it says has been clamoring for the cheaper fuel source. Officials said Phase II would allow natural gas to reach Rutland by 2020, which they say is 15 years sooner than if there were no pipeline to IP.
A Sept. 10 PSB hearing on the Phase I pipeline project drew hundreds of citizens, the vast majority of whom spoke against the project, citing primarily environmental reasons. And opposition to Phase II could be even more strident, with opponents noting that while the pipeline could be tapped by small pockets of residential users in Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham, the project was developed with one major corporate user in mind — International Paper, an out-of-state company that less than a decade ago proposed burning tire-derived fuel at its mill in spite of widespread protest from Vermonters.
Cornwall has emerged as a protest hub for Phase II.
“Cornwall residents have made it extremely clear: They do not want a high-pressure gas transmission line scarring our environment for the next 100 years,” the Cornwall board stated in its letter to the governor.
“Legal challenges aimed at stopping and/or seriously delaying (the project) are already being explored.”
Bruce Hiland, Cornwall selectboard chairman, said he and his colleagues recognize Vermont Gas’ desire to extend service to Rutland, a community that could use an economic boost that natural gas could provide. But they object to the proposed pipeline segment to IP as a means of achieving that goal.
“We ask that (the governor) direct his resources to come up with an imaginative, creative mechanism to finance a straight-to-Rutland-now project,” Hiland said during an interview on Monday. “What I’m looking for is a ‘win-win’: A win for the governor, the state’s energy plan and a win for my community that doesn’t want its environment violated like this for who knows how many decades.”
That direction is reiterated in the board’s letter to Shumlin.
“The solution we can envision from our very local vantage point is for you to direct state agencies to work with Vermont Gas to come up with a different financing device to enable them to build the pipeline straight to Rutland and not IP,” reads the letter. “Surely the financial resources exist and need only creative assembly.”
Cornwall officials are candid in their letter about their criticism of the Phase II pipeline plan, contending that it is:
• “Simply a convenient and calculated ploy to benefit International Paper and Vermont Gas.” Officials claim natural gas would save IP $15 million each year, with the savings going “straight to IP’s coffers.”
• A project that “sugars down to a financing scheme,” one that would land Vermont Gas a “single enormous customer (IP) boosting their annual volume by 30 percent. But Vermont Gas’ big payoff is that the IP deal would cheaply finance their expansion to Rutland.”
Cornwall officials cited only one reason to support the Phase II pipeline.
“The sole benefit to Vermonters from a pipeline rammed through Cornwall, Shoreham and under Lake Champlain is — if the wind is blowing right — a modest reduction in IP’s stack emissions,” the letter states.
Shumlin administration spokeswoman Sue Allen on Tuesday said the governor had received the Cornwall selectboard’s letter but had not yet reviewed it, and was therefore unable to offer a comment at press time.
Meanwhile, Vermont Gas officials have seen a copy of the Cornwall board’s letter and said they remain committed to the Phase II project.
“The only way to get the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas to Rutland before 2035 is to serve the Ticonderoga paper mill,” Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark said.
“Waiting until 2035 is not an option.”
He contended the company has tried to work with Cornwall to design a mutually acceptable project.
“After various meetings and convening a working group with town officials, Vermont Gas developed a route that complies with guidelines in the Cornwall Town Plan,” Wark said. “The underground route traverses open areas, will only cross six landowners’ property and will provide service to residents of Cornwall. It’s important to note that Cornwall’s plan directs the utility to provide natural gas service to the village and West Cornwall.”
Asked about Cornwall officials’ suggestion that Vermont Gas work with the state to identify and fund a direct pipeline route from Middlebury to Rutland, Wark said he did not believe project financing could work without IP revenues.
“Vermont Gas would consider any option that would help to bring the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas to more Vermonters,” Wark said. “We looked long and hard for other state or federal funds that would help to support this investment. Unfortunately, a ‘Rural Gasification Act’ did not exist and there is was no funding available. This is why the arrangement with International Paper is so valuable to Vermont. Under this agreement, IP will pay for a larger, longer pipe that will allow us to serve Rutland 15 years earlier than we could have without IP. Trying to fund this without IP would place a higher burden on Vermonters and/or push out service to Rutland well into the future. It is hard to imagine how a state economic incentive package would be better for Vermonters than having IP pay for the larger, longer pipe needed to serve Rutland, but we are always open to ideas.”
Hiland promised his community would continue to oppose the Phase II project. The selectboard is encouraging its constituents to convey their opposition to their legislators.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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