Middlebury town officials push for conditions on Phase II pipeline
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard has for the past several months listened to corporate presentations and public feedback about Vermont Gas Systems’ proposed natural gas pipeline that would extend from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
On Tuesday, individual board members for the first time opened up on how they feel about the controversial, $70 million “Phase II” project.
And while the panel stopped short of issuing a consensus “pro” or “con” statement on the plan as a group, they unanimously endorsed a memorandum of understanding that spells out a series of conditions that Vermont Gas will have to meet in order for the pipeline to pass muster with community leaders.
“I was opposed to Phase I, and I am opposed to Phase II,” Selectwoman Laura Asermily said of the pipeline proposal, which is currently being reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB).
“I think it’s being mindful of our global future to say ‘no’ to this pipeline.”
While Asermily and fellow Selectwoman Susan Shashok declared opposition to the plan, some of their colleagues voiced their support. Others reported having mixed feelings about the Vermont Gas application.
“Moving natural gas through a pipeline is far better than above-ground transport,” Selectman Nick Artim argued. “This is not going to create an oil spill that will coat the lake (Champlain).”
That was a sampling of some of the comments during the board’s 50-minute debate on the subject, as they scrambled to meet a PSB deadline for testimony to be included in its evaluation of a pipeline plan that has drawn a lot of fire from residents in Cornwall and Shoreham, the two other Vermont communities that would be affected by the project. Folks in both of those towns passed Town Meeting Day resolutions opposing the project, which would primarily benefit IP, a company that currently relies on fuel oil to power its boilers. Natural gas is currently around half the cost of fuel oil.
Vermont Gas officials are also advancing Phase II as a means of savingVermont ratepayers $45 million of the cost to deliver natural gas to Rutland by 2020, which would be 15 years earlier than projected.
Middlebury officials in late April hosted a public meeting to get feedback from local landowners who would be affected by Phase II. They compiled a list of concerns to include in a memorandum of understanding on the project that will be submitted to the PSB. That memorandum includes some of the following stipulations:
• That VGS shall negotiate “in good faith with landowners regarding the acquisition of easements,” and that the company and its agents give 48 hours’ notice prior to coming on to private property.
• That above-ground project infrastructure — such as the proposed pig launcher (an oversized section of pipe critical to maintenance) and receiver site — be surrounded by a 7-foot locked perimeter fence. The site for those facilities must be landscaped and screened.
• That Vermont Gas take steps to mitigate any traffic impacts associated with the project, and that the company will work with the town of Middlebury to accommodate the “potential future construction of a traffic roundabout” at the intersection of Exchange Street, Route 7 North and Happy Valley Road.
• That Vermont Gas provide training to first responders so that they are prepared to deal with any potential pipeline-related accident.
And after listening to more public feedback on Tuesday, the selectboard agreed to add two new conditions in the memorandum: That Vermont Gas be required to remove the pipeline infrastructure when it is no longer being used; and that the company provide local emergency responders with spark-resistant tools to be used while responding to incidents involving natural gas infrastructure.
The board considered taking an official position on Phase II, but balked when it was clear that members were divided on the topic. They seemed content on Tuesday to convey a position of neutrality while rallying behind the conditions laid out in the memorandum of understanding.
Selectman Brian Carpenter was among board members who professed mixed feelings about Phase II. He said he is concerned about climate change and lessening the state’s carbon footprint, but at the same time he believes businesses should be able to have access to natural gas.
“I worry about the future we leave our kids, and part of that is the economic future,” said Carpenter, general manager of Champlain Valley Equipment. “At some levels, we’re taking stances in Vermont that are making us non-competitive with neighboring areas.”
Carpenter said he would not decline to sign a board letter of support for Phase II, but added “I won’t be a driver for it.”
Asermily said IP has the option of importing natural gas by rail or truck. She added natural gas prices could spike and become less advantageous. Asermily also voiced concerns that access to natural gas could put a damper on conservation and renewable energy efforts.
“I’m struggling on how we are going to build alternatives if we are still connected to a natural gas pipeline,” Asermily said.
Selectman Travis Forbes said he had not yet come to a decision on whether to support or oppose the Phase II project.
Selectman Gary Baker did not declare a position on Phase II, but contested claims that the presence of a natural gas transmission might hurt property values for affected property owners. He said he had done some research with area lending institutions indicating that farm values would not be affected. He said the pipeline would primarily traverse farmland, as opposed to homesteads.
Artim said he supports Phase II as a means of getting cheaper natural gas to communities within the region, and argued that Middlebury is part of an economic region that includes Port Henry, Ticonderoga and Rutland. He said people from those areas do business in Middlebury and vice versa.
“It is very important for this line to get to Rutland,” Artim said. “How many of our neighbors work at plants in Rutland that could benefit from this natural gas?”
Selectboard members at their meeting heard from a handful of area residents who urged them to oppose Phase II.
Among them was Mary Martin, whose Cornwall property would be bisected by the pipeline.
Martin claimed that Vermont Gas had not been a “good corporate citizen” in its dealings with her and other affected property owners.
“They have bullied and lied,” she alleged.
“If they wanted to provide us with free gas for the rest of our lives, we would say ‘no,’” Martin added.
Middlebury resident George Klohck argued that Addison County is being asked to bear the hardship of hosting the pipeline for the benefit of a single corporate entity that he said has a record of emitting toxins into Lake Champlain.
Ross Conrad, a Middlebury resident and longtime opponent of the project, said he believes the environmental negatives of the pipeline would outweigh the economic positives.
“We are assuming a lot of liability in taking the pipeline on,” he said, arguing that the affected towns should demand compensation based on the amount of gas that flows through the conduit, as opposed to property tax revenues that would decline annually based on depreciation of the project infrastructure.
Conrad voiced concerns about the amount of methane that could escape from the pipeline and the extent to which the project could create an industrial corridor that could give rise to other utility infrastructure.
Middlebury resident Victoria DeWind said the town should look out for itself and its immediate neighbors.
“I think our first obligation is to stand by our communities,” she said. “We should be standing by them instead of an entity that isn’t even in our state.”
The PSB’s second public hearing on the Phase II pipeline is slated for Thursday, June 12, at 7 p.m. at Middlebury Union High School.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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