Pipeline protesters halt eminent domain appraisal in Monkton
MONKTON — Bearing banners and singing songs, several dozen protesters blocked an expected appraisal Thursday at Monkton resident Claire Broughton’s property, where Vermont Gas Systems is seeking to lay a natural gas pipeline over her objections.
The protesters waited in a cold wind for about an hour before hearing via Broughton’s lawyer that state officials had called off the visit. He said officials deemed the situation too “menacing.”
Protesters say they plan to ramp up activities as the pipeline moves forward, now that a recent Public Service Board ruling in its favor has cleared the way.
Vermont Gas has built 11 miles of the 41-mile project already, traversing the distance from Colchester to Williston. When complete the pipeline, called the Addison Natural Gas Project, will extend to Middlebury and Vergennes.
The company says it has reached voluntary agreements with nearly everyone else whose property is in the path of the pipeline. An eminent domain hearing by the Public Service Board involving Broughton’s property was to be held in late December but was rescheduled after protesters became disruptive.
Broughton’s attorney, Jim Dumont, said she welcomes the appraisal but opposes the eminent domain proceeding.
“The protests going on outside are on a public road, and as far as Claire is concerned, these folks have a First Amendment right to their opinions, and that’s what they’re doing,” Dumont said Thursday.
The protesters indicated they were focused on both Broughton’s situation and the wider threat from burning natural gas.
“We believe climate warming is real, it’s human-caused, and it’s really a danger for the future of the world and the people on it, so saving the world is what it’s about,” said George Klohck, explaining why he and his wife, Margaret, made the drive from Middlebury to stand in front of Broughton’s driveway.
The protests will continue, organizers say.
“People are really mad, and it’s really easy to empathize with Claire in there,” said Alex Prolman, of Rising Tide Vermont, one of the groups involved in the protest. “There are opportunities to keep helping our neighbors and our friends during this process, and it’s not a difficult task for a lot of people. They heard there was an eminent domain procedure happening, and they said, ‘When? Where? I’ll be there.’”
Anna Rose, also of Rising Tide Vermont, said actions like Thursday’s will only increase in frequency as work on the pipeline proceeds.
She said filings by Vermont Gas suggest the pipeline is intended to facilitate a large interstate gas pipeline network that represents much greater environmental harm than what appears from the pipeline itself.
The Public Service Board should have taken that into account when it approved the pipeline, said Monkton resident Nathan Palmer.
The gas that the pipeline will carry does burn cleaner than the fuel oil many residents use to heat their houses in Addison County, Palmer said. But the environmental harms caused by producing that gas overshadow any of its environmental benefits, he said.
Much of what the pipeline will carry will be produced through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, he said, which opponents say is associated with numerous social and environmental harms.
The appraisal would have determined what Vermont Gas would pay Broughton for installing the pipeline across her property. Dumont said Broughton will continue to fight eminent domain, adding that she preferred he speak for her at this time.
Vermont Gas says it’s still willing to negotiate.
“The company has reached agreements with over 98 percent, 161 out of 164, landowners,” said Corporate Communications Manager Beth Parent. “We are deeply appreciative of the time and energy each landowner and their communities have put into this important clean energy project. We are committed to reaching agreements with all of the remaining landowners who are willing to try to reach a resolution.”
The property condemnation proceedings come after the Public Service Board, in a much-anticipated ruling, said Jan. 8 that the pipeline will still benefit ratepayers even though it has increased dramatically in price.
The order says the Public Service Board will not reopen its examination of the pipeline, which effectively means the project can go ahead.
Opponents of the pipeline say a variety of circumstances changed since the board issued the original certificate of public good in December 2013, most notably that cost estimates have ballooned from $86.6 million to $154 million. The opponents say the project represents a net harm to residents.
The order from the board incorporated an agreement that Vermont Gas reached last year with the Department of Public Service, the arm of the Shumlin administration charged with representing ratepayers.
Under that deal, ratepayers in Franklin, Addison and Chittenden counties will cover $134 million of the pipeline’s costs. The board emphasized in its order that this document played a significant role in its decision.
Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia has said that even if ratepayers shouldered the full cost of $154 million, the project would still represent a net benefit for Vermonters.
Vermont Gas Systems CEO Don Rendall said the agreement means the company bears the risk of the remaining $20 million in costs, plus any additional increases.
Vermont Gas plans to complete the project this year, Rendall said.