Vermont regulator digging into pipeline project

MONTPELIER — Last Thursday, the Public Utility Commission ordered a comprehensive investigation of the methods and practices used by Vermont Gas Systems in the construction of a 41-mile gas pipeline from Colchester to New Haven and on to Middlebury.
On Wednesday the commission had ordered a delay in the assessment against Vermont Gas of a $25,000 fine that had been recommended by the Department of Public Service, saying that a full investigation of the pipeline should be conducted before determining the amount of the fine.
The investigation of the pipeline was, in part, at the urging of the Agency of Natural Resources, whose scientists have said that possible oversights in the installation of the pipeline — a failure to install “trench breakers” — could end up draining surrounding wetlands.
An attorney who petitioned for the investigation on behalf of five private citizens provided the commission with evidence suggesting the trench breakers weren’t installed.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said the company welcomed the investigation.
“We take the issue of safety very seriously, and we’re confident in the integrity of our pipeline, but we also do support any regulatory process that’s going to lead to a thorough and fair review of our performance and the safety of our pipeline,” Parent said.
James Dumont, the Bristol attorney who sought the investigation, said he looked forward to it as well. “This is what my clients wanted, and this is what the public deserves,” he said.
The Department of Public Service asked the Public Utility Commission in February to issue the $25,000 fine against Vermont Gas for failing to bury the pipeline deeply enough in 18 places along a 2,500-foot stretch near New Haven. In failing to properly bury the pipeline, Vermont Gas violated the terms of the permit authorizing the pipeline’s construction, the department said.
The commission responded by ordering an investigation of the 2,500-foot section of the pipeline.
While the Department of Public Service supported the investigation of the section in question, and officials have said the department will assist in any investigation the commission orders, they also have suggested that a reexamination of the entire length of the pipeline would be redundant, because the department closely monitored the pipeline’s construction while it was underway.
Dumont and his clients have accused the Department of Public Service repeatedly of failing to provide sufficient oversight during the pipeline’s construction. The proposed $25,000 fine was in response to violations Dumont’s clients brought to the attention of state and federal authorities, Dumont has said.
The commission’s order followed public comments from another 80 citizens seeking a full investigation of the pipeline’s construction.
Rachel Smolker, one of the residents represented by Dumont, said she was pleased with the commission’s decision, but the legitimacy of the investigation would depend in part upon who conducts it. The commission has said the investigation would be conducted by a qualified third-party specialist.
“We are pleased that the PUC is taking this seriously,” Smolker said on Thursday. “The outcome of this investigation — the extent to which the public can feel confident — depends upon the real independence and capability of whoever is charged with doing the investigation.”
Dumont has suggested in the past that there are pipeline experts who aren’t dependent on the gas industry for their livelihood. Dumont said Thursday that he looked forward to aiding the commission in locating and retaining “the best expert possible.”
A representative of the Department of Public Service was not immediately available for comment.

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