Opinion: Public shut out of pipeline process

There has been continued public scrutiny and growing erosion of trust in the entire Public Service Board (PSB) process, yet last month the PSB attempted to block the public from attending a pivotal hearing on the Vermont Gas pipeline. A group of Hinesburg residents are fighting the proposed eminent domain takeover by Vermont Gas through Hinesburg’s only public park. The Geprags Park case is based on a Supreme Court ruling that states “if land is already dedicated to public use it cannot be infringed upon — cannot be taken by eminent domain — and diverted to another public use.”
Once a federal judge’s ruling required the PSB to allow the public to attend the Geprag Park hearing. the PSB answered with a grossly inadequate remedy. There was room for only six members of the public to be in the hearing room and the remote access did not provide clear visibility or consistent audio for those who were shut out of the hearing room. The PSB 2016 budget that I found online was $3,480,181 million, an increase of 2.4 percent over fiscal year 2015. With Vermont’s energy future in the balance and growing public interest in that future, it is a welcome sign that the PSB just announced that another hearing on the pipeline will be held in the Pavilion Auditorium on the ground floor of the Pavilion Building in Montpelier.
On Sept. 7, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) will present their oral argument to the Board that there needs to be an amendment to the Certificate of Public Good (CPG) issued in December of 2013 to Vermont Gas due to the substantial change(s) in the approved project. When the original project was approved, costs were estimated at $86.5 million, oil prices were much higher than they have been for many months now and cold climate heat pumps were a new alternative. We will probably never know the actual costs of this pipeline until this project is completed, if it ever is.
Over the years, history shows that Vermont Gas has an uncanny ability to explain away countless and excessive cost overages and project and environmental oversights. Once they are uncovered, the PSB and other state agencies seem to always find a way to accept their flimsy excuses. One recent example on the Geprag’s Park debacle by VT Gas is they failed to delineate a wetland within the park in the permitting process. Commissioner Deborah Markowitz of the Agency of Natural Resources simply dismissed it as an “unintentional oversight.”
With 41 miles of pipeline being constructed through countless wetlands within that 41-mile corridor, one would think that Vermont Gas with all its engineers and now $165.5 million budget could have clearly, and more importantly, honestly delineated a wetland. As the pipeline construction continues to dig up Vermont’s private properties and wetlands, affect our environment, economy, energy policy and rates for current customers of Vermont Gas, hopefully many more Vermonters will add their voice.
In this political season, I say to each and every legislator, especially those in Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties this means YOU! In all the past hearings on this very controversial project that may very well set a precedent on future energy policy, I have never seen even one legislator show up to a hearing. You have all been invited to attend previous hearings on Vermont Gas Docket 7970, you have all been contacted by many of your constituents to take a clear stand, so here is your opportunity to earn our trust and in turn, possibly our vote.
The PSB mission statement uses the words, “strives to achieve,” and with this one small concession of providing an adequate hearing room on Sept. 7, it appears they have actually committed to attain that goal. Let’s hope that our legislators care enough to hear firsthand the argument that will be presented on Sept. 7, that this is not the project that was originally approved as “in the public good.”
Diane Derrick

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