Vermont Gas defends underwater drilling process

ADDISON COUNTY — Phase II of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas pipeline, which would involve 19 miles of steel conduit stretching underground from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., has generated a lot of criticism and comments of concern from citizens who have weighed in on the project this year.
But 4,000 feet of those 19 miles of proposed pipeline have drawn particular scrutiny from project opponents. That’s the portion of the pipeline that would be placed — through horizontal directional drilling — under Lake Champlain, between Vermont and New York state.
Environmentalists and critics of the pipeline project have expressed fears at Vermont Public Service Board hearings that the horizontal drilling process and/or the pipeline itself could fail and pose the danger of a methane gas leak they believe could affect the quality of Lake Champlain and the fish that live there. They have also warned of the potential for the pipeline construction to disrupt beds of toxic sludge they say have been created by past and current lakeshore industries, such as International Paper.
But officials from International Paper, Vermont Gas and its consultants submitted this week that the pipeline would be drilled 30 feet under the bed of Lake Champlain in an area they said was not close to any confirmed toxic sludge beds. They also claimed that the release of any methane from a ruptured pipeline would bubble harmlessly to the surface and not pose a health hazard to fish living in the lake, or humans living around it.
“We believe the potential for any kind of leak is extremely small,” said Jeff Nelson of Pioneer Environmental, a Vergennes-based firm hired by Vermont Gas to do environmental consulting for the project, which would also traverse several wetland areas, streams, the Otter Creek and some major roads.
The Independent  recently reached out to Vermont Gas, International Paper and officials at Williston-based Engineers Construction Inc. (ECI) — the company with which Vermont Gas is contracting to conduct horizontal directional drilling association with Phase II — to respond to concerns raised about potential impacts of the pipeline on Lake Champlain.
The pipeline crossing of Lake Champlain would occur just south of Five Mile Point in Shoreham, at what project planners say is one of the narrowest, shallowest sections of the lake. The maximum depth along the 4,000-foot channel between the Vermont and New York sides of the lake at Five Mile Point is 25 feet, according to Ken Pidgeon, president of ECI.
 “At the planning level, that was the general area identified as being favorable for the crossing,” said Nelson, who has been charged with mapping all of the wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas along the Phase II route. “On the Vermont side, it is farmland, and on the New York side, there are a couple of camp lots, and the rest of the property over there is owned by International Paper.”
If Phase II is permitted, ECI could pursue the Lake Champlain drilling task independently from the rest of the 19-mile project. In basic terms, here’s how that portion of the project  — estimated at a cost of more than $1 million — would occur, according to Pidgeon:
• ECI would choose a side of the lake at Five Mile Point at which to start drilling. The company would assemble the various 10-meter segments of drill steel and other equipment on that chosen side of the lake. The key piece of equipment is a drill rig, usually on tracks, which has a frame that holds the drill steel. A motor on the rig rotates the drill steel, and hydraulically pushes the drill steel into the ground.
• The drill rig is endowed with a drill bit — in this case with a shovel face — that is pointed at the soil at the desired angle. Once activated, the drill bit would dig into the soil along a path that would be coordinated via radio transmitter on the drill head. Additional sections of the drill steel would be added as the bit advances into the soil. The pipeline would be placed at least 30 feet below the lakebed, making sure it would not disturb sediment.
• When the drill steel surfaces at the other side of the lake, a reaming device and the actual pipeline segment would be connected at that end. Workers — stationed at the original drill hole — operate machinery that would pull the drill steel back through the original hole. Meanwhile, the reamer (attached at the other end) would enlarge the bore hole and snake the pipeline into place. The pipeline would be treated with what Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark described as a “cathodic protection system” and “multiple coatings to protect it from abrasion and corrosion.”
A non-chemical detergent — flowing from the reamer — and clay would be used to stabilize the bore hole, according to Pidgeon.
The radio transmitter would help ECI officials navigate around any obstacles — such as stone or ledge — that the drill bit might encounter. Pidgeon added the drill bit could be switched up to drill through stone. ECI has already conducted soil borings that indicate a preponderance of soft soil, according to Pidgeon.
ECI, Pidgeon noted, typically conducts “a couple hundred” directional drills per year. As the Addison Independent went to press, the company was conducting a horizontal drill under the Winooski River. The company is scheduled to conduct a 3,200-foot horizontal direction drill under the Monkton Swamp as part of the already approved Phase I pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury.
Nelson believes the pipeline could be installed under the lake safely with minimal chances of a rupture. He said if a rupture were to occur, the resulting methane release would occur at least 30 feet below the lakebed and if any methane were to escape, it would bubble up to the surface and dissipate. He said Vermont Gas has the capacity to turn off the flow of natural gas from the Vermont side of the lake if any pipeline breach were to occur.
“(The methane gas) wouldn’t have any effect on the fish or the lake because the gas would dissipate,” Nelson said.
But some Addison County residents have disputed that statement.
Middlebury resident Leslie Reagan-Caer was one of several area citizens who weighed in on the proposed installation of a pipeline below Lake Champlain during a Public Service Board hearing held in Middlebury this past June. She told state officials she feared the project could 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 at the time. “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?”
Bethany Menkart of Cornwall, during another PSB hearing on Phase II held in Shoreham this past spring, also questioned the wisdom of introducing a natural gas pipeline under the lake.
“Lake Champlain brings millions of people to Vermont every year for many different reasons,” Menkart told state officials. “When there’s a leak, or explosion or break (in the pipeline), it will devastate our state and economy.”
Donna Wadsworth, spokeswoman for International Paper, countered that fear by explaining that the “proposed pipeline location is not in proximity to either the current mill effluent discharge or the former industrial discharge at the LaChute River outflow into Lake Champlain. The current mill effluent discharge is approximately one mile north of the horizontal directional drill location. The former industrial discharge on the LaChute River, used by numerous industries from the 1800s through 1970, is some three to four miles south of the horizontal directional drill location.
Norton and Marlene Latourelle live in Orwell, and their property includes 2,500 feet of frontage on Lake Champlain. They can see the International Paper plant from their home. They dispute IP’s claims of there being a single toxic sludge bed in the lake, pointing to a 1993 article written by R.S. Haupt, then with the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s materials and research division.
“Our physical and chemical measurements show that thewaste effluent from the IPC plant has enlarged the depositof unnatural sediment accumulating north of the dischargediffuser from 1973 to 1988,” Haupt concludes in his article, titled “Paper plant effluent revisited — southern Lake Champlain, Vermont and New York.”
“The similarity of the composition and texture of the toplayer of sediment in the cores near the diffuser to those ofthe effluent supports the contention that much of the materialaccumulating on the bottom from the diffuser to theCrown Point Bridge is derived from the IPC plant,” Haupt wrote.
With Haupt’s report in mind, Norton Latourelle believes installation of the pipeline under the lake could pose environmental concerns.
“They would be drilling south of the ‘new’ sludge bed,” Latourelle said. “There is contamination there…”
He said an eruption of methane into the chemicals contained in a sludge bed could have hazardous consequences.
“I’ve been asking the Lake Champlain Committee, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Attorney General to do appropriate studies to determine what chemicals would be compounded out of a mix of methane and the chemicals there,” Latourelle said.
“Our overall concern is that no one has done the appropriate studies to sign off on this project.”
Latourelle added that placing a natural gas pipeline under the lake would add to the risk of future environmental damage, citing specifically the prospect of a pipeline rupture from a future earthquake.
“Everyone admits there are risks,” Latourelle said. “The probability of a catastrophic accident might be low, but it’s still there. And are the risks outweighed by the benefits? This is a huge ‘money’ thing.”
Mike Winslow is staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC), a bi-state citizens’ organization dedicated to protecting the health of the lake and accessibility to its waters. The LCC has sent testimony to the Public Service Board outlining its major concern as being “inadvertent returns of the drill. Inadvertent returns occur when the drill surfaces before reaching its final desired end point. Inadvertent returns lead to discharge of mud, clay and drilling lubricants to the water. Such discharge would be illegal under the Clean Water Act thus subject to enforcement actions and fines.”
The LCC is urging the PSB to impose several precautionary conditions on Vermont Gas before allowing a horizontal direction drill project to occur. They include:
•  Conducting a survey of benthos — the organisms that live on the lake bed — within 200 feet on each side of the drill path before drilling.
•  Using bentonite clays during the drilling. Environmental studies have indicated bentonite clays do not pose a hazard to humans or wildlife, according to the LCC.
•  Controlling the drill advance rate to minimize the potential for inadvertent surface returns.
•  Monitoring drilling pressure and mud loss to detect any inadvertent returns as soon as possible.
•  Conducting hourly observations of water during the time the drill passes under the lake, and periodically during the rest of the drilling, to detect any discharges associated with inadvertent returns.
•  Developing a response plan in the event that inadvertent returns occur.
The LCC is also asking for development of a plan to monitor and maintain the pipeline in the future. Chief concerns include possible corrosion.
“If everything goes according to plan, there shouldn’t be any impacts on the lake,” Winslow said.
The Addison Independent also reached out to attorneys representing VPIRG and the Conservation Law Foundation who responded that they were not focused on any issues with the gas company drilling under the lake.
Pidgeon said he does not see anything objectionable on the LCC list.
“These recommendations are standard industry practice,” he said. “And our procedures on the lake bore would also be consistent with these recommendations.”
Ultimately, the PSB will determine whether any drilling or Phase II will take place. The panel continues to review the Vermont Gas application. No date for a decision has been set.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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