Safety of VGS pipeline questioned

VERMONT — Opponents of a 41-mile natural gas pipeline into Addison County have filed a complaint with a federal agency, alleging that Vermont’s Department of Public Service overlooked repeated safety violations during the pipe’s construction.
Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said the accusations are entirely unfounded.
“This is a hail-Mary, last-ditch effort to scuttle this project,” Recchia said.
“One thing I am sure of is this pipeline has been constructed safely, and professionally, and it meets all the standards that need to be met in terms of safety for the public,” Recchia said. “Anyone who says something to the contrary is distorting the truth in order to achieve their objective, and that’s really unfortunate.”
A handful of organizations representing thousands of Vermonters submitted a letter Monday describing a pattern of lax enforcement by the state to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The letter accused Department of Public Service officials of failing to halt work on the project in spite of repeated safety violations.
Recchia says the letter actually shows Department of Public Service officials were doing their jobs and responding appropriately to ensure that the pipeline is properly built.
The letter states, as evidence of the department’s poor oversight, that the officials found 183 violations during 2015 by company the responsible for the pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems. It took administrative action on 13 of those violations.
Nearly all of those violations actually involved propane, not the natural gas that the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline will contain, and only six of those involved Vermont Gas Systems in any way, Recchia said.
One of the letter’s signatories, Geoffrey Gardner, of Bradford, said he’s hoping that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will take control of the project’s oversight from the Vermont Department of Public Service.
“What we’re looking for is for the PMHSA to actually take over all the inspection duties and any legal actions necessary against DPS or VGS,” Gardner said. “The state obviously isn’t doing what they should do, and we’re asking the feds to step into their place.”
Recchia says his agency has discovered problems with the pipeline, but they’ve been corrected, and Vermonters have been at no time in any danger from the pipeline.
“I’ve been absolutely focused on safety, and on ensuring that staff have the resources they need” to monitor the pipeline’s construction almost daily, Recchia said. “I’m very proud of the work they’ve done, and Vermonters should know that this pipeline has been constructed with absolute safety in mind.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration audits Vermont’s Department of Public Service every year, for procedures concerning pipeline safety, Recchia said. Recchia said he welcomes any further inquiry the agency may want to conduct as a result of the letter.
“I have no doubt we’ve done exactly what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
Vermont Gas representatives said the complaint, which asks the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for an emergency intervention, represents an 11th-hour effort to stop a project that’s already on the verge of completion.
Only 2,200 feet of the 41-mile pipeline remains to be built, said Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Beth Parent. That section traverses Hinesburg’s Geprags Park, where Vermont Gas is currently attempting to secure an easement through eminent domain. Another group of pipeline opponents have appealed the Public Service Board’s order granting Vermont Gas a right-of-way through the parcel, and they plan to take the case to the Vermont Supreme Court if the Public Service Board again rules against them.
Vermont Gas built the pipeline under the guidance of a team of 20 private inspectors and two state inspectors, who monitored the structure’s construction daily, Parent said.
“Regardless of what … opponents claim, it’s been safely constructed, meeting all applicable federal and state safety standards,” Parent said.
The letter isn’t likely to substantially affect the project, Parent said, although that appears to be its aim.
“These folks have one purpose, and that’s to stop this project,” Parent said.
Gardner, one of the pipeline opponents, says a pattern of poor worksmanship extends back to the pipeline’s outset when contractors damaged pipe sections while burying them beneath Interstate 89. Problems have continued, Gardner said, including a recent incident in which Department of Public Service officials notified Vermont Gas that the company had probably violated safety regulations by failing to prevent nearby power lines from magnetically inducing small amounts of current in unburied pipeline sections.
These and other incidents should have led the Department of Public Service to shut down the project already, Gardner said.
Gardner also said what the pipeline is meant to carry — a slightly adulterated form of methane — harms the atmosphere.
“It’s promoted as a clean alternative to coal and oil, and there is very little clean about it,” Gardner said.
The science journal Nature published a report this month that claims methane emissions from fracking and from coal and oil recovery are actually as much as 60 percent greater than previously estimated. Methane is thought to act upon the atmosphere much as does carbon dioxide, with somewhere on the order of 20 to 60 times the severity. Although methane burns much cleaner than most fossil fuels, recovering it from the earth is believed to release enough of the chemical to put natural gas on par with coal, in terms of its contribution to global climate change.
Gardner also said Vermont Gas is attempting to unfairly seize control over the Geprags Park plot of land.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has received the letter, and will review it both within the agency and with the Vermont Department of Public Service, said PHMSA Public Affairs Specialist Susan Hand.

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