State hires expert to verify pipeline depth

MONTPELIER — The Public Utility Commission (PUC) will hire an “independent expert” to check the burial depth of Vermont Gas Systems’ pipeline between Colchester and Middlebury, part of which is closer to the surface than intended.
According to a Dec. 6 PUC order, the expert will look in particular at a half-mile section where the pipeline’s depth doesn’t comply with the permit. The analysis will also check the pipeline’s depth at stream crossings along its 41-mile length.
The half-mile section where the pipeline is closer to the surface than the permit allows contains 18 separate lengths of pipe that are between 3 feet and 4 feet below ground level. The permit requires Vermont Gas to have buried the pipeline at least 4 feet deep throughout that section.
Vermont Gas has applied for a “non-substantial change” certification from the PUC, which would retroactively determine that the discrepancy isn’t substantial, between the actual depth and the depth required in the permit.
Even at the depth it’s currently buried, however, the pipeline still meets federal safety requirements, Vermont Gas representatives have said. The company will cooperate with the investigation, and there’s an abundance of documentation proving that the pipeline is not dangerous, said Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Beth Parent.
“We will work with the PUC’s independent expert to ensure they have the information they need to resolve this matter efficiently,” Parent said. “We have provided extensive documentation to the Public Utility Commission that we believe shows the Addison Natural Gas Project has been constructed safely.”
Opponents of the pipeline including Rachel Smolker, who is a litigant in the case against Vermont Gas, say they’re pleased that the PUC appears to be taking their concerns seriously.
Smolker said she’s hopeful that the PUC will expand its inquiry if the investigator finds that the pipeline’s depth doesn’t match what Vermont Gas has told regulators.
Vermont Gas representatives have said that the half-mile section under question, which is found in a marshy area company representatives have dubbed “the clay plains swamp,” was especially difficult to bury to the required depths because the soil in that section is particularly unstable.
Smolker said she and others believe the disputed section is part of a pattern of lax performance standards from the company. She said she would not be surprised to find that other portions of the pipeline outside that section also do not comply with the company’s permit.
“We have good reason to think the problem is much more systemic than the 18 locations in New Haven,” Smolker said.
The investigation into the clay plains swamp section is a good start, and a change of course from the PUC’s previous behavior, she said.
“I’m really please the PUC decided to do this — it’s the right thing to do,” Smolker said. “It’s a sign the PUC is starting to take their mandate to the public more seriously than they have in the past. It’s a bit late, but we welcome it.”

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