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Federal agency to investigate Vermont Gas on safety standards

VERMONT — Eight environmental and public advocacy groups late last week announced that a federal agency was going to investigate concerns they raised over the quality of the construction of natural gas pipeline being build from Colchester to Middlebury by Vermont Gas Systems.
“Vermont groups and citizens in opposition to the Vermont Gas pipeline are celebrating the Jan. 12 announcement from the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) stating that they will be opening an investigation into whether construction of the pipeline has been in compliance with minimum federal safety standards,” the groups said in a Friday press release. “Citizens are demanding a halt to further construction, pending outcomes of the investigation.”
The groups are 350 Vermont, Protect Geprags Park, Rutland Area Climate Coalition, Toxics Action Center, Just Power, Upper Valley Affinity Group, Central Vermont Climate Action, and Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
The groups explained that in August the Department of Public Service filed a “Notice of Probable Violation” with Vermont Gas alleging failure to comply with various standards pertaining to electrical safety. VGS was then granted three extensions on the timeline for responding to those allegations, and in the interim was allowed to continue construction through November without proving it had addressed the safety violations.
In November, Vermont Gas and the DPS filed a “Memorandum of Understanding” regarding the allegations.
Groups appealed the memorandum to the Vermont Supreme Court.
This past Dec. 9, 2016, the Supreme Court lifted a stay against Vermont Gas that allowed the company to complete the last 2,000-foot section of a 41-mile pipeline. Justices of the court lifted the stay because they said they believed Vermont Gas would likely prevail in the case that had prevented VGS from putting the pipe 30-50 feet below the surface of Geprags Park in Hinesburg via horizontal drilling.
Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent reported at the time that with the stay removed, Vermont Gas would have the pipeline finished in 10 weeks, which would mean mid-to-late February 2017. Former Department of Public Service head Chris Recchia was quoted this week by VTDigger.org as saying Vermont Gas expects to be pumping gas in the pipeline by April.
If that happens, it will complete an estimated $153.6 million project that was first approved by Vermont’s Public Service Board on Dec. 23, 2013, with an estimated price tag of $86.6 million.
LETTER TO THE FEDS
On Oct. 15, the above named groups and 113 individual citizens filed a formal request with PHMSA requesting that the agency step in on an emergency basis, to oversee and investigate the construction.
The Notice of Probable Violation focused around safe construction standards in proximity to high voltage transmission wires, which causes induced voltage in the steel pipes. Proximity of wires and pipes can increase the chance of electrocution for people who touch the pipes and it can increase corrosion of the pipes, the groups claimed.
Other complaints reported to PHMSA include concerns over apparent shallow pipeline burial depth, valve stations in standing water, and pipes partially submerged in water, among other issues.
Rachel Smolker, a member of Protect Geprags Park in Hinesburg, said she was thrilled by the federal investigation.
“It is clear that this project was rushed through in the face of strong public opposition and serious cost overruns,” she said in the press release. “In Hinesburg VGS is just now beginning construction through Geprags Park even though the granting of an easement through public park land is currently under appeal at the Vermont Supreme Court. It is an outrage that they are allowing construction to proceed even before the case has been heard in the court, and even more outrageous given that we have good reason to believe construction has been done hastily and shoddily.”
Jane Palmer, a resident of Monkton living alongside the pipeline, said that citizens needed to take matters into our own hands to learn about standards for safe construction.
“It is nearly impossible to get relevant information from VGS or other sources,” she said in the press release. “Meanwhile we can see with our own eyes that pipes are strung under transmission wires, sometimes sitting in standing water. In places it appears they were not buried as deeply below the surface as required. Vermont Gas just keeps telling the public that everything is fine and that they are eager to deliver ‘safe, clean and affordable’ gas. We live right alongside this pipeline and have absolutely no trust in VGS or confidence that construction was done properly.”

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