Monkton residents lobby for soil testing

MONKTON — Does soil along the VELCO power line route in Monkton contain unsafe levels of a hazardous chemical, and if so, who is responsible for cleaning it up?
Those questions were the subject of a meeting among a dozen Monkton residents and representatives from the departments of Public Service, Health and Environmental Conservation, as well as VELCO on the evening of Aug. 7 at the Monkton Firehouse.
The meeting was the third that Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, has moderated between Monkton residents and the Department of Public Service related to Phase I of the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, a pipeline that will be constructed through the town.
The first two gatherings largely focused on the negotiating tactics Vermont Gas Systems is using to secure land rights from residents, though this round was dominated by discussion on potential soil contamination near VELCO utility poles, and whether that may be exacerbated by construction of the natural gas pipeline. Much of the pipeline route runs through the VELCO corridor.
Residents are concerned that a chemical used to treat wooden utility poles has leaked into soil, and potentially into their water sources, such as wells or springs. Pentachlorophenol, colloquially known as PCP, is used as a herbicide, fungicide, insecticide and disinfectant. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies PCP as a likely human carcinogen, or cause of cancer.
“What are my liabilities as a homeowner?” asked Monkton landowner Maren Vasatka, whose property will be bisected by the pipeline. “Whose responsibility is it to figure out if there’s contamination in my spring?”
Lori Candor of the Department of Health told residents utility companies have used PCP since the 1950s. VELCO spokesman Brian Connaughton said the line was installed in 1954. He added that PCP is only used on poles at the factory, and is not sprayed when VELCO crews perform regular field maintenance on existing poles.
State officials first became alerted to potential PCP contamination in Monkton in February, when tests found an unhealthy level of the chemical in a Monkton landowner’s well. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued VELCO a notice of alleged violation, and the company agreed to replace the well.
George Desch of the DEC said that VELCO cooperated with the state’s investigation.
“Before they even got (the violation notice) they were already working towards replacing the well,” Desch said. “They’ve basically been responsive to all that we’ve asked them to do.”
At the request of state regulators, Vermont Gas filed a detailed soil management plan with the Public Service Board last month. In it, the company identified about 150 utility poles within 50 feet of the limit of construction disturbance for the pipeline. Vermont Gas will test for PCP and other contaminants in these areas in advance of construction, using consultants from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., a land development firm with an office in Ferrisburgh.
VELCO’s Connaughton said that per an agreement between the electricity transmission company and Vermont Gas, the actual pipeline will come no closer than 50 feet from any utility pole. Furthermore, Connaughton said that if hazardous levels of PCP are found, and state regulators determine that VELCO is at fault, the company will conduct any necessary cleanup.
“If we’re identified as the source, as the responsible party, we will be responsible,” Connaughton said.
Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said that while the impetus for the investigation is the construction of the Vermont Gas pipeline, that company does not have anything to do with PCP contamination.
“This came up as a result of the Vermont Gas project, which is why we’re all here talking about it, but it is not a Vermont Gas issue,” Recchia said. “It is a telephone and utility pole issue, so we’ll address it that way.”
Recchia said he does not believe the soil testing will delay the construction of the pipeline, which began last month.
“We feel that soil management plan is their responsibility and an appropriate response to it, and should not hold up the project.”
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark told the Independent last month that the company hopes to complete Phase I of the pipeline, which will run from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes, by the end of next year.
Desch said after reviewing Vermont Gas’ soil management plan, he believes the company is taking the necessary steps to address any potential soil contamination.
“The methodology that they talked about with their soil management is sound,” Desch said.
Desch said Vermont Gas plans to test the soil near the poles that are close to construction ahead of excavation crews, so any contamination concerns can be addressed without delaying the project.
“They’re going to be contacting landowners to get permission to go on the property and test, ahead of time,” Desch said. “So we’ll know if there’s actual contamination in the right of way.”
Some residents expressed concern that Vermont Gas could not be trusted to conduct soil tests, since the company has an interest in not delaying the project. Recchia said he has tripled his inspection staff, who will monitor the project closely.
“I’ve got two inspectors that can go to different sites at the same time, unannounced,” Recchia said. “That will be going on throughout construction.”
Desch added that encountering hazardous material when building a utility line of any type is not uncommon, and that Vermont Gas is going beyond legal requirements by testing ahead of time.
“Utility work of a general nature happens all day long, and people encounter hazardous waste while they do that, and they are required to manage it appropriately,” Desch said. “Vermont Gas basically has said not only that they’re going to do that, but they’re planning ahead to do it. We can’t ask them to do any more.”
At the request of the Department of Public Service, the Public Service Board has opened a docket to investigate potential PCP contamination along the VELCO corridor. The Public Service Board will hold a public hearing on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Montpelier.
Department of Public Service attorney Louise Porter said she believed the hearing would answer a lot of the questions that residents have.
“A lot more will become apparent after next Thursday,” Porter said.

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