Regulators want answers on depth of gas pipeline
NEW HAVEN — Three months after natural gas started flowing through the 41-mile Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury, Vermont Gas Systems continues to come under fire for deviations from construction specifications laid out in its state permit.
The Vermont Public Utility Commission has asked the company for explanations to account for construction-related deviations from the permit and evidence that no other deviations exist along the entire length of the pipeline.
On July 14, the Vermont Public Utility Commission (formerly called the Public Service Board) announced an investigation into whether Vermont Gas violated the terms of its 2013 Certificate of Public Good by burying segments of the pipeline at a depth of less than four feet at 18 locations in New Haven, in a wetland along the VELCO right of way.
In that same order, the commission also gave Vermont Gas until Aug. 11 to provide evidence that the pipeline was buried at the required depths along the rest of its 41-mile route through Chittenden and Addison counties. The order also requires Vermont Gas to “construct a root-cause analysis of the reasons for this and other construction-related deviations from the 2013 Final Order.”
According to the PUC’s order, Vermont Gas could face penalties or be ordered to take “remedial action” should the commission determine its deviations from the permit constitute a “material or a substantial change to that plan.” If they are “non-substantial” then it’s a simple matter of paperwork after the fact for the project to have passed regulatory hurdles, explained Bristol attorney James Dumont, who represents a number of clients opposing the project.
The importance of whether or not the changes were “material” and “substantial” comes from the 2013 permit itself, which states that “construction, operation, and maintenance of the proposed Project shall be in accordance with the plans and evidence as submitted in this proceeding. Any material deviation from these plans or a substantial change (italics added) to the Project must be approved by the Board.”
“The state relies on the plans and evidence submitted by a project applicant that you’re going to comply with them. That’s the heart of the process,” said Dumont.
Dumont continued: “Act 250 as well as section 248 — the whole system of environmental regulation — would crash if we can’t rely on the testimony and the exhibits filed by a permit applicant.
“It’s one thing if you’ve got an Act 250 project and they said they were going to paint it pink and they paint it blue. But if you’ve got a gas pipeline?”
Concerns about pipeline depth in the New Haven VELCO right of way area were first brought to light by Hinesburg resident Lawrence Shelton. Last September, Dumont said, Shelton was called to the VELCO right of way in New Haven over what seemed like a wetlands concern.
“One of my clients was told, ‘Hey, there’s an excavator stuck in the mud in wetlands in New Haven. The whole thing’s buried. You’ve got to go check this out. People were concerned it was a wetlands issue,” said Dumont. “So Shelton went down with the intent to see this excavator buried in the mud and what he found was the pipeline that was in the trench looked like it was only 18 inches deep.”
Federal regulations require a depth of three feet in the VELCO location and in the Certificate of Public Good the company committed to a depth of four feet.
Shelton took pictures of the shallow pipeline. Then, together with other members of Protect Geprags Park group, he submitted his evidence to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. That agency began an investigation of the project and shared Shelton’s evidence with Vermont Gas. In March, Shelton returned to the VELCO right of way with Department of Public Service Gas Engineer G. C. Morris and both observed that the pipe had been reburied to 3.5 feet.
On June 2, Vermont Gas notified the Public Utility Commission that it had laid the pipe to at least three feet (again, shallower than the four feet agreed to in the permit but within federal regulations) and asked the commission for an after-the-fact ruling that the unilateral change was not “material” or “substantial.”
On June 23, on behalf of clients, Dumont asked the commission to investigate, consider penalties and have depth of burial inspected by an independent third party the entire length of the pipeline.
The PUC answered with its July 14 order.
In a supplemental filing on July 13, Dumont supplied the commission with evidence that claims to show other violations in burial depth throughout the entire length of the pipeline. Dumont’s evidence specifically relates to pipeline burial depth under streams and in residential areas.
“We submitted proof that in 2014 Vermont Gas unilaterally decided to depart from the evidence it submitted to the PUC in 2013 committing to seven-foot-deep burial of the pipeline beneath each and every steam and never implemented at all its commitment to four-foot-deep burial in residential areas,” Dumont said.
In his July 13 filing, Dumont emphasized why it is important that the project be constructed to the standards committed to in the 2013 Certificate of Public Good.
“The seven-foot and four-foot burial commitments were more strict than federal standards and were made for only one purpose — to assure the public of the safety of the pipeline (emphasis in the original). The Commission and the public were misled. The pipeline was not built to the safety standards which VGS explicitly committed to and which the Commission explicitly relied on.”
VERMONT GAS RESPONDS
Vermont Gas President and CEO Don Rendall said his company is working to give the PUC what it asked for and make the Aug. 11 deadline.
“We’re proud of the work by our contractors and our company in completing the pipeline, all 41 miles,” he told the Independent. “The pipeline was built deep enough. Our contractors built it to the high standards that we set and that includes the Certificate of Public Good standards.”
When asked about Shelton’s September photograph showing pipeline in the New Haven VELCO right of way buried at only 18 inches, Rendall said only: “We’ll address that photograph and that allegation on Aug. 11.”
Rendall said the 18 locations in the VELCO right of way in New Haven cover about 2,000 feet, through a stretch of “swamp” in which construction conditions “are very difficult. They’re wet and muddy.”
Nonetheless, Rendall emphasized that Vermont Gas sent its contractors into the area with the CPG specifications.
“The contractors had a specification in the VELCO corridor of four feet … When they did their construction in the swamp our standard and our expectation was that they would achieve four feet. After they’d brought all their equipment out, we then sent in the next stage in construction, which is the folks that measure the pipeline depth … And the measurements revealed that it was less than four feet.”
Rendall characterized Vermont Gas’s response as pragmatic and professional.
“At that point our team did exactly what they should have done, which is they evaluated the problem and they worked on a smart, cost-effective and practical solution, which was to work with VELCO to see if this (four-foot depth) was necessary or not to meet the VELCO standards.”
Rendall concluded: “When our team and VELCO reviewed the loading standards (VELCO’s standards so that it can move heavy equipment in the area and maintain its high-voltage transmission lines), we both concluded that those loading standards were achieved with the pipeline as it was constructed as less than four feet.
“It was all done with good practice and good engineering.”
Nevertheless, Dumont pointed out, abiding by the terms of the CPG is a matter of public trust, noting that citizens of Addison and Chittenden counties “are entitled to rely on the commitment that the gas company made under oath to the Public Utility Commission.”
“When they filed their application, there was a huge public outcry in Addison County,” Dumont said. “People were concerned about this being fracked gas, people were concerned about climate change, people were concerned about safety … The gas company said, ‘We disagree with you that it’s bad for the climate but as for safety we’re going to exceed federal safety standards to make sure that this is safe for the public.’ They said it over and over again.”
After it receives the evidence requested from Vermont Gas, the commission plans to schedule a public hearing.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
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