Vt. Gas pipeline begins delivering fuel to Middlebury today
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Gas on Wednesday, April 12, officially turned on the spigot to its 41-mile Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline, sending its product to an initial four corporate users in Middlebury’s Industrial Park.
The launch comes after more than six years of planning, protests and a still-pending case before the Vermont Supreme Court through which the plaintiffs are challenging the legality of Vermont Gas’s move to bury its pipeline under Hinesburg’s Geprags Park.
Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall said during a phone interview today that his South Burlington company is anxiously awaiting a court decision but is now turning its attention to building distribution lines in Vergennes to begin natural gas service to Little City residents and businesses by the end of this year.
“This is great news for the thousands of families and businesses who have waited patiently for the choice and opportunity of affordable natural gas service,” Rendall said of the pipeline activation, in a press release. “We are so pleased to offer service to our new customers. This has been an incredibly challenging project. We are very thankful to the communities and landowners who have supported us along the way and look forward to helping even more Vermonters save money and reduce their energy needs through our nationally recognized efficiency programs.”
Officials identified the AgriMark/Cabot cheese plant, Vermont Hard Cider, Porter Medical Center and Middlebury College as the four Middlebury customers that began receiving natural gas on Wednesday.
Rendall said a “couple hundred” Middlebury residents and businesses have thus far signed up for the service, and he’d like to have “several hundred more” on the customer list by the beginning of the next heating season.
“We know many in the community have been waiting patiently for this project to be done, and we are committed to working with all members of the Middlebury community now that we’re officially there and can provide this service to (customers) who think this is a good choice and opportunity,” Rendall told the Independent.
The additional Middlebury village customers will be brought online in the coming weeks and months as more people sign up for the service and more distribution lines are laid in the natural gas service area. Vermont Gas has spent the past two years putting in distribution lines in Addison County’s shire town.
“We’re thrilled that the project is completed, and we are looking forward to working with families and businesses in Middlebury to bring them on in the coming weeks and months,” Rendall said. “We will continue to market (natural gas) in the county.”
Ultimately, Vermont Gas hopes to funnel natural gas to more than 4,000 households, businesses and institutions in Middlebury, Bristol, Vergennes, New Haven, and perhaps other Addison County communities.
While Vermont Gas officials hailed Wednesday’s pipeline launch, project opponents saw it as a major setback. Hundreds of Vermonters protested the pipeline plan while it was being considered for permitting by the Vermont Public Service Board. Some opponents argue the pipeline will pose safety concerns for residents along its path, while others have stated Vermont should not import natural gas that has been derived from hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — a process through which highly pressurized water and chemicals are used to open fissures in the ground to access pockets of natural gas.
Vermont lawmakers a few years ago passed a law banning hydraulic fracturing within the state’s borders.
Pipeline critics have also voiced concerns that the availability of natural gas — a fossil fuel — could postpone the state’s efforts to wean itself off of fossil fuels and the damage they inflict on the environment, plus their impact on climate change.
A group of Vermonters compiled a list of their pipeline concerns, which they detailed in a letter delivered on Tuesday to Gov. Phil Scott. They delivered a similar letter to the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration on Monday.
“Vermonters are now left not only to pay for the vastly escalated costs of the project which have more than doubled, but also will bear the consequences of the long term safety risks to life and property which now lie buried out of sight in our yards and through our communities,” Rachel Smolker, one of the Hinesburg complainants, said of the project in a press release announcing the letters.
NEW GAS CUSTOMERS
But the launch received a far different reaction from representatives of the four Middlebury businesses that are now receiving natural gas.
Doug DiMento, director of communications for Agri-Mark/Cabot, said the use of natural gas will save the company around $1 million annually compared to current pricing of the fuel oil it has been using. Natural gas, according to Rendall, is currently 10 percent to 15 percent cheaper than fuel oil and around 40 percent less costly than propane.
DiMento said the resulting drop in operating expenses will make Agri-Mark/Cabot’s cheese more competitive in the national market and will result in greater profits for the company’s owner-farmers, who are currently struggling with low milk prices.
Agri-Mark/Cabot has invested $1 million in new boilers and other infrastructure that allow it to receive and burn natural gas. The company’s considerable energy costs include operation of its two, 94-feet-tall power dryers that help de-liquefy whey so it can be turned into other useful products.
“The more we make, the more the farmers make,” DiMento said Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Vermont Supreme Court will render a decision on the Geprags Park case.
Bristol attorney James Dumont on April 4 argued before the court on behalf of seven Hinesburg residents who contend that laying 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’s highest court after the Public Service Board last September granted Vermont Gas an easement across the park.
Dumont’s November appeal automatically included a stay on construction. As previously reported in the Independent, the Supreme Court lifted that stay on 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.
Rendall said Vermont Gas will comply with the decision the court ultimately hands down. But in the meantime, the company will conduct business as usual.
“Last week’s hearing was another step in the process of that matter,” Rendall said. “We look forward to a Supreme Court decision and having this issue resolved. Today, we are focused on the families and businesses in Addison County that have waited so patiently to have access to this energy choice, and we are excited to finally be able to bring it to them. We will be there for our customers and we look forward to resolution of the case.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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