Pipeline plan gets frosty reception
SHOREHAM — Some came displaying colorful banners, bearing such slogans as “Tap lines, not gas lines,” and “Plant trees, not pipelines.”
Others recited poems and prayers.
All who walked up to the microphone spoke passionately.
And a vast majority of those who weighed in on Vermont Gas System’s proposed “Phase II” natural gas pipeline in Shoreham this past Wednesday evening urged the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to reject the project based on environmental and public safety concerns.
The May 7 hearing was the first of two such gatherings that the PSB scheduled to gather testimony on Phase II of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project that calls for a pipeline to be buried from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, then under Lake Champlain to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. International Paper would pay the $70 million cost of the project, money it expects to quickly recoup by having access to natural gas, which is currently around half as costly as the fuel oil the company currently purchases to power its mill.
The towns of Cornwall and Shoreham passed Town Meeting Day resolutions opposing the project. Residents in those and other area towns have expressed concerns about the project’s potential impact on property rights, public safety and the environment. Wednesday’s hearing saw more than 60 people take to the microphone, with most speaking out against the pipeline. Around 200 people total attended, with some standing along the back wall at the Shoreham school gym, which seats around 160 people.
Cornwall resident Stan Grzyb objected to the prospect of Vermont Gas using eminent domain to acquire property from those along the pipeline route who are unwilling to negotiate easements. He pointed to bill S.246 signed into law by then-Gov. Jim Douglas in 2006 that prohibits the use of eminent domain if the purpose is based primarily on economic development.
“Economic development is the primary goal of the pipeline,” Grzyb said.
“We have Vermonters who have lived here for generations whose land is being threatened by two international corporations,” he added, referring to International Paper and Vermont Gas, which is owned by Montreal-based Gaz Métro. “It’s our land; it’s our orchards; it’s our sugarbush; it’s our deeryards. We are being threatened by these two corporations in taking our land for those two businesses, and we resent it.”
Salisbury resident Barrie Bailey said she wrote her comments about the meeting while her 7-year-old grandson watched.
“He said, ‘Grandma, will those three (PSB board members) make sure that we can still have a livable planet when I’m grown up?’” Bailey said. She looked at the PSB members and asked, “May I tell my grandson there are three people who care about his future?”
Bailey questioned why New York state has not been amenable to extending a pipeline to IP through the Empire State.
“New York considers their land to be too pristine to host a pipeline,” Bailey said. “So what’s Vermont’s environment and land? Are we chopped liver?”
Cornwall resident Bobbie Carnwath said hosting the pipeline extension could jeopardize Vermont’s reputation as one of the nation’s most pristine states.
“I moved here from Alabama; I know what it’s like to be number 49,” Carnwath said. “Let’s not go there.”
Shoreham resident Rustan Swenson noted Vermont and New York have banned hydraulic fracturing as a means of extracting natural gas from the ground. Yet both states, he said, appear willing to import such gas as a matter of convenience.
Swenson called the pipeline, “A great leap backwards.”
Bristol resident Jennifer Vyhnak recited her comments in the form of a Christian prayer, during which she asked for God’s help as Vermont weans itself from fossil fuel, overcomes “greed and shortsightedness,” and promotes “peace on Earth, through peace for Earth.”
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad was among several people who took issue with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission’s April 9 vote on the Phase II project. The commission voted 15 to 11 in favor of a motion that the Phase II pipeline could pass muster with the county’s regional plan. One of those “yes” votes was cast by an Otter Creek Audubon Society member who had been instructed to vote “no,” and two other affirmative votes were cast by Monkton delegates, in spite of the fact that the town has voiced opposition to the Phase I pipeline (from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes) that has already been OK’d by the PSB.
Bethany Menkart of Cornwall questioned IP’s history of environmental stewardship, alluding to past effluent and sludge spills from the plant into Lake Champlain and its attempt in 2006 to secure permission to burn tires as an alternative fuel source.
“Lake Champlain brings millions of people to Vermont every year for many different reasons,” Menkart said. “When there’s a leak, or explosion or break (in the pipeline), it will devastate our state and economy.”
Leslie Regan-Caer of Middlebury urged state officials to pay more heed to the impact the project will have on the people living close to where the pipeline would be built.
“It is not a question of pipeline or no pipeline,” Regan-Caer said. “The question is, what are all the human needs at stake and how do we together create a solution and build a community that is inclusive, fair and responsive to the needs of the people who live and work in it.”
Maren Visatka is a Monkton landowner whose property will be traversed by the Phase I pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury, a project that has already been OK’d by the PSB. She criticized Gov. Peter Shumlin for supporting the Phase II pipeline project before the PSB has rendered its decision on the application.
“Because the governor — and he alone — is to decide public good, I guess the whole concept of this meeting is just an act of kindness to make the citizens of Vermont believe they have a voice,” Visatka said.
She added Vermont should instead be looking at greener energy sources than natural gas.
“In the world of energy, this pipeline is already obsolete before it is even in the ground,” she said.
Polly Birdsall of Shoreham said she’s worried that pipeline advocates appear to be focusing on short-term financial gains and not long-term consequences of the project.
“If your land is used for this, it’s forever,” she said. “The decisions here will carry forward.”
Birdsall acknowledged that Ticonderoga is dependent on IP for jobs, but said, “I don’t think (Vermont) should be held hostage to that.”
Tanna Kelton of Charlotte said the PSB would be unwise to approve a project that she said produces little benefit for Vermonters.
“Why would we take these people’s land for a Canadian oil company to benefit IP, which is an out-of-state company?” she said.
“Why are you throwing Vermonters under the bus?”
Bridport resident Bill Fifield agreed.
“As I see it, what Vermont gets for the most part is the liabilities with this project, including infringement on property rights with pipeline routes being acquired by eminent domain, while landowners continue to pay property taxes on parcels,” he said.
“I understand the value of a strong economy, but I just don’t understand why this board would even consider approval of a project that would put the short-term corporate profits above the future wellbeing of the next generations of Vermonters, to say nothing of the future of our planet,” he added.
Middlebury resident Jono Chapin called the pipeline proposal a classic example of the clash between economic and environmental interests. He said that unfortunately, the economic argument has won out in most of the clashes.
“Where we are in history right now is economics can’t rule the day anymore,” he said. “Let’s make our decisions about what is above ground and not the fossil fuels that are below ground, as we go forward.”
OUTSIDE THE COUNTY
The hearing also drew many people from outside of Addison County.
Ann Krauss of Rutland called fossil fuel an addiction that she said society must curb if it is to protect the planet from more environmental damage.
“Unlike most addictions, fossil fuel kills as well as destroys health and property of innocent bystanders, rather than confining its impact to the user,” Krauss said.
“Feeding an addiction is never in the user’s best interest.”
Patrick Flood of Woodbury was among those who argued the state should clamp down on further fossil fuel projects because of their alleged impact on climate change.
“Climate change is coming at us like one of those half-mile-wide tornadoes that went through Arkansas, and what are we doing?” he said. “In Vermont, we can’t even pass a small appropriation to do thermal efficiency in our homes and save money on carbon emissions. Instead, we are gathered here tonight to decide whether we should invest tens of millions of dollars in expanding our carbon emissions.”
Flood said it is future generations — and not those who will benefit from the pipeline during the next 10 to 30 years — who will “pay the price” for the project.
“This is much more than an economic issue, and it’s much more than a political issue, and it’s even more than an environmental issue,” Flood said. “I think it’s a moral issue. I think it is wrong for us to make decisions that will burden our children for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.”
Not everyone who spoke on Wednesday was opposed to the project, however.
Shoreham Fire Department member Jim Ortuno said local firefighters support the pipeline project from a safety standpoint. He said it would be generally safer to have natural gas funneled through an underground pipeline than the current situation where gasoline and fuel oil are trucked along Route 22A.
“We are in favor of the pipeline, only because of the different kind of fires that we fight,” Ortuno said. “We find that the pipeline is the safest scenario… We are in charge of the Route 22A corridor and the amount of fuel going down that road would turn most people’s heads.
“Regardless of how we all feel personally, we feel that pipeline is coming,” Ortuno added.
He noted that the Shoreham selectboard has taken a neutral stance and is negotiating (with Vermont Gas) for as many safety amenities — such as equipment and training — as it can secure.
Nick Causton of Shoreham said he is one of many local residents who can see and hear activity at the IP mill each day. He believes IP’s conversion from fuel oil to natural gas will improve environmental conditions for area neighbors. It’s a conversion he said would greatly reduce carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions from the plant, as well as eliminate 2,000 annual visits to IP by trucks carrying fuel oil.
“The (natural gas conversion at IP) will not only benefit Lake Champlain and Addison County, but also Vermont and North America,” Causton said.
Wednesday’s hearing drew representatives of several business advocacy groups from New York state.
NEW YORKERS MAKE CASE
One of them was Mathew Courtright, executive director of the Ticonderoga Area Chamber of Commerce. Courtright recited a variety of statistics about IP’s importance within the economic fabric of Essex County, N.Y. He said IP is Ticonderoga’s largest employer, with more than 600 jobs and more than 600 affiliated landowners and loggers. He said the mill in 2012 purchased $160 million in goods and services and paid $1.2 million in school and property taxes. Courtright said IP in Ticonderoga has an annual payroll of more than $51 million.
Having access to natural gas, Courtright said, would greatly reduce IP’s operating expenses and therefore give it financial stability.
“The project has the potential of securing the long-term viability of IP,” he said.
Carol Calabrese of the Essex County (N.Y.) Industrial Development Agency offered additional financial facts about IP that she said illustrate the plant’s importance to Vermonters. She said the mill spends more than $3 million annually on goods and services provided by Vermont businesses. Calabrese added the company pays approximately $1 million in wages each year to its Vermont employees, who number around 16.
“(IP) is committed to maintaining world-class environmental performance,” Calabrese said.
Lisa Ventriss of the Vermont Business Roundtable confirmed her nonprofit organization’s support for the project as a means of promoting economic development in the region.
“We are organized around the mission to make Vermont the best place in America to do business, be educated and live life,” she said. “We believe the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project is in harmony with our vision.”
Charlie Harrington of Crown Point, N.Y., claimed the IP mill no longer emits odors and has improved its environmental record during the past few decades.
“This proposal from IP is part of their story, their symbiotic relationship with Vermont and New York,” Harrington said. “This pipeline is part of the progression of efficiency, our environmental respect and an insurance policy that this industry will survive. I realize that this is a very contentious issue, but I also want you to know that this is not a sequel to ‘Tremors’ with Kevin Bacon as the star.’”
Shoreham resident Jim Peden, a retired physicist, said he was looking forward to the Phase II project and its promise of bringing what he called the “cleanest burning gas known to man” to Addison County.
“I’d be very happy to see this plant over here convert to methane, because that will clean up the air over here for us in Shoreham,” he said.
The PSB’s next hearing on the pipeline is scheduled for Thursday, June 12, at 7 p.m. at Middlebury Union High School. People can also submit their written comments to the PSB at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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