Pipeline foes urge regulator to nix Phase II project

MIDDLEBURY — Around 80 people took to the podium at the Middlebury Union High School auditorium on Thursday to urge the Vermont Public Service Board to reject Vermont Gas’s proposed natural gas pipeline that would extend from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
Thursday’s was the second and final hearing the PSB held regarding Phase II of Vermont Gas’s Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, a $70 million pipeline that will also traverse the towns of Cornwall and Shoreham and be drilled under Lake Champlain before arriving at the IP mill. The plan has drawn considerable fire from affected landowners, environmentalists and community leaders who believe the pipeline could be dangerous, would infringe on private property rights, and could affect the water quality of Lake Champlain.
Opponents have also objected to the notion that the pipeline would primarily benefit two out-of-state corporate entities — IP of New York and Vermont Gas, a Canadian-owned company. They note that only small pockets of Vermont residents along the pipeline route would be able to tap into the natural gas, and some of them pledged on Thursday not to become consumers of a product that is currently about half as costly as fuel oil.
“We would say ‘no,’ we absolutely do not want to burn natural gas,” said Sharon Tierra, a Shoreham village resident. “Some of my neighbors feel the same way about that. There are very few people I think that would be customers of gas in Shoreham.”
“I don’t want my energy at the expense of someone else’s misfortune,” echoed Salisbury resident David Wally Bailey.
Tierra was among the many who signed up for the right to deliver up to two minutes of testimony to the PSB, a quasi-judicial panel that will determine whether to award a Certificate of Public Good to the Phase II project. The board has already green-lighted Vermont Gas’s Phase I pipeline that will extend from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes.
Only a handful of Thursday’s speakers urged the PSB to approve Phase II, intended to give IP a cheaper fuel source to power its boilers. The company — which would pay the entire $70 million price tag of the pipeline — currently burns more expensive No. 6 fuel oil. Project proponents have argued that Phase II will underwrite $45 million of the costs of a “Phase III” project to extend the natural gas conduit to Rutland by 2020, which would be 15 years sooner than previously projected. The first PSB hearing on Phase II, held in Shoreham last month, drew several economic development officials from upstate New York who advocated for the project. There was no such delegation present on Thursday night, when the three PSB board members heard from a rapid succession of opponents who delivered passionate statements through speeches, poetry, Haikus and signs.
One of the speakers, Leslie Reagan-Caer, said the installation of a pipeline below Lake Champlain is likely to stir up toxic sediment in the bed of the lake, which is a drinking water resource for 188,000 people.
“What we are considering is threatening the health of Lake Champlain and the drinking water supply of nearly 200,000 people, for a handful of Phase II gas customers,” she said. “Is it in the public good to grant a Phase II certificate, so that gas can be delivered to just a handful of users in Cornwall and Shoreham? Or is it more truly in the public good to protect the health of nearly 200,000 people by safeguarding the drinking water supply from the actual threat of toxins stirred up by horizontal, directional drilling?”
Andrew Bojanowski is a manager of the Eddy Farm School for Horse and Rider, located off South Street Extension in Middlebury. He said the pipeline is slated to be buried under an often wet, 20-acre hay field the farm depends on for its operation. He added pipeline construction would be very disruptive for horses and riders, who would be riding 100 yards from where the pipeline would be laid.
“That field is the core of our farm,” Bojanowski said. “I fear the disruption of the pipeline could affect the field.”
Monkton resident Ivor Hughes was one of several speakers who objected to the notion that communities and citizens along Vermont Gas’s proposed pipeline routes are having to spend money to react and defend themselves against the plan. He estimated Monkton has thus far incurred around $27,000 in pipeline-related expenses (from Phase I) and suggested the town submit an invoice to Vermont Gas.
“I encourage all towns and schools in the (pipeline) path to also ask for reimbursement,” Hughes said. “We didn’t ask for this, and we shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
Weybridge resident Fran Putnam joined others in objecting to the pipeline’s depiction by some as a “bridge fuel” to renewables. She suggested that IP could install a formidable renewable energy project at its mill for the $70 million it is preparing to spend on the pipeline.
“We are not talking a bridge; we are talking a gangplank,” Putnam said.
Orwell resident Marlene Latourelle said that while IP should be credited for trying to get “cleaner” by burning natural gas instead of fuel oil, the company should get its natural gas by some other means. And she added that if Vermont Gas wants to get to Rutland County sooner, it should do so by raising rates on current customers rather than building a new pipeline that she said could cause harm and that few Vermonters will be able to use.
Dale Birdsall of Shoreham said the PSB should not approve a project that would benefit two large corporations and relatively few Vermonters at the expense of many others.
“While we would like to help our fellow Vermonters, this comes at too costly a price,” Birdsall said. “Your vote should uphold the wishes of the majority of Vermonters who oppose this pipeline.”
Former Cornwall Selectwoman Judy Watts spoke of meetings with Vermont Gas officials, who she said presented various promises on how the project would be organized. She claimed the company did not fulfill many of its original promises.
“We do need rapid transition to ‘4F,’” she said. “That is a fossil-fuel free future.”
Bristol resident Jessie Ruth Corkins said Vermont would be better off using more wood pellet energy than expanding its use of natural gas. She recalled developing a nonprofit venture while a student at Mount Abraham Union High School that has resulted in pellet stoves being installed in more than 20 low-income homes. It is a fuel source that she said could become cheaper than natural gas.
Tom Tailer, a teacher at Mount Abraham, read a poem summing up his opposition to the pipeline. One of the stanzas:
Change before it is too late.
Turn back the hands of fate…
The Planet’s dying can’t you see?
That it’s been killed by you and me?
Elizabeth Frank of Orwell also delivered her message in poetry:
This Canadian pipeline will do us no good,
And would set us back greatly from where we once stood
A progressive state, a little engine that could,
We want to save our land from the corporate hood.
Addison resident Jan Louise Ball urged the PSB to remember who it is serving when it decides whether to grant a permit to Phase II.
“Here is your public,” she said of the crowd seated behind her. “You are the board, and you serve us. So you remember that and understand that?”
Hillary Hatch of Leicester was one of several people who alleged that IP and its agents were not treating landowners with respect. The company has been criticized for threatening eminent domain.
“This pipeline is being bullied into existence,” she said.
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad gave the PSB what he acknowledged as a premature thanks for what he forecast as the panel’s inescapable denial on a permit for Phase II. He cited Vermont law governing the use of eminent domain and other factors in arriving at his conclusion.
“I can see this pipeline won’t be built,” Conrad said. “I want to thank you all so much.”
A few project proponents also took to the microphone.
Among them was Middlebury resident Bill Mraz, who said natural gas would help Vermonters heat their homes and grow businesses.
“Heat makes the Vermont economy go,” he said.
Mraz challenges pipeline opponents to instead protest the rail transport of fuel oil near the shores of Lake Champlain. He suggested the accidental spill of oil from one of those 20,000-gallon rail cars into Lake Champlain would cause a disaster that would “dwarf” any potential impact of drilling a pipeline beneath the lake.
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, advocated for the Phase II pipeline on behalf of 18 area business organizations representing “tens of thousands” of residents.
“I’m here to respectfully submit the fact that there’s an overwhelming majority of Vermonters and regional partners who support this project,” Bishop said, a comment that drew some chuckles and hisses from the audience. “Natural gas is cleaner, safer and about half the cost of alternatives.”
Bishop reeled off the names of various economic development and union organizations who she said support the pipeline as a means of preserving and growing jobs.
“This majority supports this project because cleaner, lower-cost fuel will make our region more affordable, preserve and create new jobs, and improve air quality,” she said.
Starksboro resident Dan Yonkovig noted the businesses that have sprung up near current natural gas service in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
“They’re all located right next to the pipeline; look in the parking lot, these people drive OK cars and trucks, their houses are decent looking, the schools are doing OK, they’re getting by and are reasonably happy,” he said. “You’ve probably never heard of half the outfits, making ceramic spark plugs, industrial hoses, medical supplies, just like most of them have never heard of Omya. If IBM didn’t have natural gas with an economic edge, they would have left town a decade ago. America is a manufacturing nation. We can’t all be farmers, housewives, retirees, school teachers and road crew. Some of us build things, process milk at Agri-Mark, make beer at Otter Creek Brewing, make micro chips and make paper.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
BETH THOMPSON, WHO lives in Rutland County, speaks against the proposed Vermont Gas natural gas pipeline during last week’s Vermont Public Service Board public hearing at Middlebury Union High School.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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