Vermont Gas puts Bristol plan on hold
BRISTOL — The future of natural gas service in Bristol, which just a few months ago looked like a sure thing, has dimmed in recent weeks.
Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) informed the Vermont Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Dec. 13 that it has paused its permitting efforts for its Bristol distribution line, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed against the town.
“We have suspended the Act 250 application work given the challenge to the town license,” wrote VGS Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Eileen Simollardes. “Whether permitting efforts resume will depend on several factors, including the legal and permitting challenges surrounding the Bristol expansion.”
Town officials and some residents have battled over whether to support an extension of a natural gas pipeline into Bristol since Vermont Gas build its main transmission line to Middlebury a few years ago.
Tensions rose in 2018. In April, after months of public debate over the pipeline proposal, more than 200 Bristol residents — well beyond the required 5 percent of the town’s registered voters — signed a petition requesting a townwide vote on the matter. After signaling it would consider it (the vote would have been nonbinding anyway), the selectboard abruptly rejected the request, then abandoned its plan to collaborate with the Bristol Energy Committee to conduct a survey of local residents.
On July 17 Bristol attorney James Dumont, on behalf of four residents, submitted a letter to the selectboard requesting compliance with a state statute that governs rights-of-way under town-owned highways. After consulting with the town’s attorney, the Bristol selectboard dismissed Dumont’s letter.
On July 23 the Bristol selectboard voted to execute a license agreement with VGS that would bring natural gas service to the town. The move won applause from residents and business owners hoping to reduce fuel costs, but to pipeline opponents who felt the selectboard had deflected their environmental and safety concerns, it felt like a slap in the face.
Three weeks later pipeline opponents sued the town.
Represented by Dumont, 37 Bristol residents filed a complaint with the Addison Superior Court on Aug. 9, alleging that the VGS agreement violated Vermont law.
“The Vermont legislature adopted a law forbidding any selectboard from entering into this type of agreement without first formally issuing a notice to the public of their right to petition for a binding vote,” Dumont explained in a subsequent press release. “After being notified of this duty, the selectboard instead chose to immediately sign with VGS.”
In a letter published by the Independent in September, Bristol resident and outspoken Vermont Gas critic Sally Burrell laid out her reasons for joining the suit:
“The citizens of Bristol have been denied our legal right and opportunity to vote on a significant project that affects us all, whether or not we choose to purchase natural gas. The intent of our legal action is to uphold our rights.”
Elsewhere in the letter Burrell alleged that the selectboard also failed to honor language set forth in the Energy Section of Bristol’s Town Plan, which was adopted in March 2017.
“The selectboard never consulted with the Bristol Planning Commission, the Energy Committee or the Conservation Commission regarding the decision to bring natural gas to our town,” she wrote.
In October Vermont Gas filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that the statute in question does not apply to its Bristol license agreement. The court is still considering the case.
As the plaintiffs and the town await a decision from Addison Superior Court, the PUC is considering a request, filed by Dumont in November on behalf of clients in Hinesburg and Monkton, to broaden the scope of an investigation into the methods and practices used to construct the Addison Natural Gas Pipeline, a 43-mile transmission line from Colchester to Middlebury that would have fed the proposed Bristol distribution line.
The motion, dated Nov. 20, asks the PUC to investigate issues raised by a report the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued during its investigation into the series of natural gas explosions that rocked Lawrence, Mass., and nearby towns on Sept. 13.
One person died and at least 21 others were injured in those explosions, including two firefighters. At least five homes were destroyed and 131 structures damaged, according to the Nov. 14 NTSB report.
Dumont cited that report and its recommendations in a Dec. 18 follow-up document filed with the PUC.
“The (NTSB) concluded that the death, personal injury and property damage caused by the Lawrence natural gas explosion would have been avoided if the pipeline company had commenced gas pipeline construction only after a Licensed Professional Engineer had assumed responsibility for the entire project.”
Available evidence suggests, according to Dumont’s PUC filing, that not only did Vermont Gas fail to obtain approval from a Licensed Professional Engineer for its Colchester-Middlebury transmission line, but the company “misrepresented to the PUC in 2013 that a licensed professional engineer was part of the team preparing revised plans.”
Vermont Gas believed the current PUC investigation was already broad enough to address the concerns of Dumont’s clients, company spokesperson Beth Parent told VTDigger earlier this month.
In its Dec. 13 letter to the PUC, Vermont Gas pointed out that its “obligation to extend natural gas service to Bristol,” was “predicated on receipt of all necessary permits and approvals.”
For now, the company will not seek those permits.
“Obviously we don’t want to go through the time and expense of the permitting process until (the lawsuit against the town) is resolved,” Parent told the Independent.
Even if Bristol’s disputed license agreement with Vermont Gas is redeemed in court, prospective Vermont Gas customers in the town face a long wait for gas service while the company goes through the Act 250 process, Dumont noted.
“It’s difficult to see how anything could happen within three years.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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