Gas pipeline beset with hurdles

Vermont Gas Systems, the Canadian company seeking to build a 41-mile natural gas pipeline through Addison County, has suffered another setback.
The company’s contractors disturbed an unknown number of endangered harsh sunflowers last Tuesday morning in Monkton, and as of Thursday Vermont Gas had halted construction on that section of the pipeline until the incident is fully investigated.
The Vermont Gas pipeline also ran into trouble several weeks ago when surveyors discovered more wetlands in Hinesburg’s Geprag Park that weren’t included in a permit for the project.
And there is new blowback from the public on another important issue. Opponents of the pipeline are outraged that the Public Service Board will bar members of the public from an Aug. 4 hearing on eminent domain proceedings for an easement through Geprag Park. In a July 15 order, the board said concerns raised by law enforcement led the board to prohibit public participation. Vermont Gas did not request the move, and police say they did not ask that hearings be closed.
Vermont Gas representatives appear to be unfazed by these latest hurdles in a project that has been beset by obstacles along the way.
Pipe is already lined up on most of the 30-mile stretch still under construction, Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said, “and crews are now busy welding, coating and lowering it into the ground.”
Vermont Gas told the board last month that the total cost of the project would go up a fourth time to $165 million. The 50,000 existing ratepayers in Franklin and Chittenden counties and 4,000 new ratepayers in Addison will be on the hook for $134 million of the project cost, according to an agreement between Vermont Gas and the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Contractors Tuesday disturbed an unknown number of endangered harsh sunflowers at a property owned by Vermont Gas.
The company had in recent weeks considered relocating the plants, but chose instead to drill horizontally beneath them.
The flowers stood outside of the “limits of disturbance” allowed by the project’s plans, and were destroyed while contractors attempted to cut other vegetation, company representatives said.
The company is investigating how much ground was disturbed and how many of the flowers were destroyed, Parent said. Construction at the site has stopped until the investigation is completed, she said.
Attorneys who have represented opponents in years-long litigation associated with the pipeline say this represents a pattern of behavior.
Sandra Levine, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said the company could have avoided destruction of the endangered plants if it had conducted a proper evaluation of the construction site ahead of time.
“It’s yet another example of sloppy workmanship on behalf of Vermont Gas Systems,” Levine said.
Vermont Gas last month discovered more wetlands areas in Geprag Park, where the pipeline is slated to pass through. The terrain was not designated as wetlands in the company’s pipeline permit.
Company representatives and Vermont Agency of Natural Resources officials say the omission of the wetlands was unintentional.
The Public Service Board has ordered Vermont Gas to explain why the company should not be held in contempt, since the company was to have secured and completed all necessary permits before beginning construction.
James Dumont, a Bristol attorney representing local opponents, told the Public Service Board earlier this month that Vermont Gas should be forced to halt work on the project until permitting issues have been resolved.
Work in Geprag’s Park hasn’t started, Parent said, because Vermont Gas doesn’t own an easement on the property yet and is in the middle of eminent domain proceedings. The park is the last parcel needed to finish the project, according to Don Rendall, president of Vermont Gas. The company has purchased easements on 163 private properties for the pipeline.
“Our success in completing the project this year is dependent on our having that parcel resolved in time,” Rendall said. “We remain hopeful that we’ll be able to complete construction this year, on schedule.”
The Public Service Board announced last week that an Aug. 4 eminent domain hearing on an easement through Geprag Park will be closed to the public.
The announcement said a live-stream of the proceedings won’t be available, and that members of the public won’t be allowed even inside the Berlin building where the hearing is to take place. Apparently, the public will be able to call in and listen by phone to the hearing.
Protesters said their ouster from the proceedings only shows the extent to which the Public Service Board serves utility companies and not the public.
Alex Prolman, a member of environmental advocacy group Rising Tide Vermont, says the protests were meant to demonstrate the hearings aren’t legitimate.
“No amount of politely participating in the process as it currently stands will end up with a decision that will work for Vermonters generally,” Prolman said. “It’s designed to work for companies, not people.”
Almost 100 protesters have been arrested since the project began moving forward more than three years ago, Prolman said. Protesters have blocked three recent board hearings on the pipeline, and have disrupted several others, he said.
No protests are slated for the hearing, Prolman said.
“We’re going to have to be creative with this one, but there’s nothing planned yet,” he said.
The board’s order says that concerns relating to police resources were one factor motivating the decision to bar the public from the hearing.
State troopers are happy to safeguard peaceful protests, and they didn’t ask for the proceedings to be closed to the public, said Vermont State Police Capt. Mike Henry.
“We don’t get involved in whether the hearing’s open or closed,” Henry said. “Our concern would be around safety, and that’s it.
“If people protest, that’s their constitutional right to protest, and we have no issue,” he said.
Police have authority to remove disruptive protesters from Public Service Board hearings as needed, Henry said.
But the Public Service Board worried that the number of protesters at previous hearings would overwhelm police resources if they were called upon to remove anyone, said the board’s general counsel, June Tierney.
A single arrest takes multiple officers, she said, and a large number of protesters could prove too numerous for police to easily restore order if necessary to allow the hearing to proceed, she said.
“The Vermont Press Association, along with the New England First Amendment Coalition, were shocked by the initial order,” Mike Donoghue, executive director of the VPA, said in an email to news organizations.
The Public Service Board has told the VPA that  members of the Vermont news media will be allowed into the hearing, but Donoghue warned that having enough seats in the hearing room could be an issue.
“The VPA and NEFAC plan to file comments about the need for transparency in cases,” he said.
Endless disrupted hearings aren’t an option, Tierney said.
Parties in Public Service Board hearings have a right to due process, Tierney said, and the board must ensure that right is preserved.
“That is the board’s job,” she said. “It’s their statutory charge.”
The board is attempting to arrange a live-stream of the proceeding, Tierney said, but technical issues with the board’s website could forestall that option. Tierney said state computer security officers had determined a live-stream could compromise the website’s firewall. The board is seeking some secure way to stream the proceedings, though, she said.

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