Supreme Court to decide last link in Vermont Gas pipeline project

ADDISON COUNTY / MONTPELIER — Over four years of controversy surrounding the construction of a 41-mile natural gas pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes culminated in 30 minutes before the Vermont Supreme Court on Tuesday.
At issue was the legal question of whether Vermont Gas Systems should have been allowed to bury pipeline under Geprags Park in Hinesburg — the last major piece of conduit to be laid. It could be days or months before the Supreme Court issues its decision.
But the pipe itself is in the ground and the pipeline itself is only about one week from completion, Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent said after Tuesday’s hearing.
“We’ve successfully completed our last drill under Geprags Park and our crews right now are prepping the pipe for the final stage, which we call ‘gas up,’” she said. “That means we’re about a week away from being able to offer an important energy choice to the families and businesses in Addison County.”
Bristol attorney James Dumont argued before the court Tuesday on behalf of seven Hinesburg residents who contend that laying the 1,987 feet of pipe through Geprags Park violates the terms under which benefactor Dora Geprags bequeathed the land to the town. Dumont appealed to the state Supreme Court after the Public Service Board last September granted Vermont Gas an easement across the park.
The PSB based that order on both the public good of conveying natural gas and on the fact the pipe would be laid using directional drilling and thus would have “little or no impact on the park and its existing uses, both during and after construction.” The 85.5-acre Geprags Park was donated to the town of Hinesburg exclusively for use as a “public park or school or for public recreational or educational purposes.” The PSB’s condemnation easement includes a section of the park designated as a Class II Wetland and, according to Dumont’s brief, gives Vermont Gas the right “to excavate a new trench through the park if … (horizontal directional drilling) is not ‘feasible’ for future repairs or replacements, the right to spray herbicides along the easement, and the right to ‘traverse the park with heavy equipment’ in certain circumstances.”
Dumont’s November appeal automatically included a stay on construction. The Supreme Court lifted that stay Dec. 9, and construction resumed in January, with Vermont Gas posting a $1 million bond to guarantee that it would dismantle the Geprags section of pipe and do whatever remediation would be necessary should the Supreme Court reverse the PSB’s decision.
For now, Vermont Gas is in prepping the line to deliver product. Spokesperson Parent explained that “gas up” is the final step in “cleaning the pipes and preparing to put the gas through.”
The pipeline has faced external and internal challenges at almost every step since the idea was announced in 2012 and the project won its Certificate of Public Good from the PSB in December 2013.
Originally estimated at $70 million, project costs are now at $165 million, according to Parent. Construction began in June 2014. A spur that would extend the pipeline to International Paper in Ticonderoga, N.Y., was proposed, but the company backed out of the project in 2016. Lawsuits in 2015 resulted in Vermont Gas having to replace its contractor to finish the project. The construction route required easements across 164 properties, which generated ongoing opposition.
While the company initially championed natural gas as a “greener” fossil fuel, climate activist organizations such as Rising Tide, Just Power, Hands Across the Valley, Rutland Area Climate Coalition, Toxics Action Center and 350VT have countered that the natural gas it would deliver is no better for the environment than fuel oil when one takes into account the way the gas is fracked from land in western Canada and the way some gas leaks from the pipeline. Plus, they said, spending on natural gas infrastructure only delayed installation of renewable energy infrastructure.
Opponents also worried that there was not adequate planning for removing the pipe at the end of its life and complained that the project would benefit the foreign owners of Vermont Gas.
Over the past year alone, protesters chained themselves to heavy machines used to lay the pipeline in Middlebury and Monkton and stood in the way of earthmoving machines working on the pipeline in New Haven.
The Public Service Board generated a considerable outcry last summer when it attempted to close hearings to the public and was overruled by a federal judge.
Vermont Gas’s Parent looks for the Supreme Court to settle the legal questions around the pipeline.
“Today’s hearing was a very important step in the process of resolving this case,” she said. “And we are really looking forward to the Supreme Court’s decision so we can have this resolved.
“We will begin serving customers in the next week.”
For Dumont, Tuesday’s arguments before the Supreme Court concerned both Geprags Park and larger issues around public land.
In essence, Dumont’s brief argued that “property dedicated to a prior public use cannot be condemned for a new public use without specific legislative authority.” In other words, the PSB had no authority to rule as it did. Such a condemnation easement, Dumont contends, can only legally be granted by the Vermont Legislature.
“Mrs. Geprags gave the land to the town for purposes of public education and public recreation,” Dumont said on Tuesday. “That is not consistent with this purpose. So under the law of Vermont the general grant of eminent domain that every utility has does not suffice because the land is already dedicated to public use. Vermont Gas needed to go back to the Legislature and say, ‘Do we have the authority to take this particular land?’ They haven’t done that.”
What that means, said Dumont, is that it isn’t just Geprags Park that’s at stake but “more generally all public lands because if this is OK, then the floodgates are open.”
Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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