Top 10 stories from 2018: Natural gas flowed to the county, but not to Bristol
When Vermont Gas Systems (VGS) turned on the spigot to its Addison Natural Gas Pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury in March 2017, it hoped eventually to deliver natural gas to more than 4,000 households, businesses and institutions in Addison County. In Bristol the company hoped to complete a distribution line by April 2019.
By the end of 2018, however, it looked possible that Bristol residents opposed to the pipeline project might have driven the company away.
VGS’s Bristol headache began just months after completion of the pipeline. Opponents in Bristol in December 2017 expressed significant enough concern about a pending agreement between the town and VGS that the Bristol selectboard promised to hold a special meeting on the issue.
At that meeting, in February 2018, gas company officials and the Bristol selectboard sparred with pipeline opponents who, in addition to expressing environmental and safety concerns, suggested that the process leading up to a proposed license agreement with Vermont Gas lacked transparency. So many people at the meeting were confused about the official status of the license agreement that the selectboard had to explain that it was still in the process of being “finalized.”
Unconvinced that the proposed natural gas distribution line had overwhelming support in the town, pipeline opponents collected more than 200 signatures (more than the required 5 percent of registered voters) on a petition requesting a special referendum on the issue, but the selectboard rejected that petition on April 2, pointing out that it “has statutory authority to make decisions about utilities.” Besides, one member acknowledged, the license agreement, which had evolved from a letter of support the selectboard signed in 2012 was, and always had been, “a done deal.”
Two weeks later members of the Bristol Energy Committee took the selectboard to task for failing to consult with their group or with the town’s planning or conservation commissions over the previous six years, which underscored many pipeline detractors’ belief that the process had not received adequate public input. The selectboard voted to press pause on the license agreement while it consulted with the town attorney.
For a short while the selectboard seemed amenable to exploring some kind of townwide survey, which residents Ian Albinson and Wendy Wilson offered to create for the town, but when Albinson and Wilson brought their first draft to the May 14 meeting, selectboard chair Peter Coffey rearranged the meeting agenda to prioritize a vote on the license agreement.
“If we vote to agree to the agreement, there’s no point in having the survey,” he said. The board then voted 3-1 to pledge their signatures to the license agreement, rendering moot any further discussion and shocking many of those present.
In July Bristol attorney James Dumont wrote a letter to the selectboard, on behalf of four residents, requesting compliance with a state statute governing highway rights-of-way and the proposed pipeline, but the selectboard, after consulting with the town attorney, decided the statute did not apply in this instance and voted to sign the license agreement with Vermont Gas.
The following month 37 Bristol residents sued the town.
In September, natural gas explosions in Massachusetts killed one person, injured 21 others, and damaged more than 130 structures, increasing the sense of urgency felt by Bristol pipeline opponents.
Already under investigation for improper installation of the pipeline into Addison County, Vermont Gas underwent new and intensified scrutiny regarding safety issues. On Nov. 20, Dumont asked the Vermont Public Utilities Commission to expand its investigation to address the findings in a National Transportation Safety Board report on the Massachusetts explosions. At issue in Dumont’s motion was whether the 43-mile transmission line from Colchester to Middlebury had been approved by a Licensed Professional Engineer, and whether Vermont Gas misled the regulator on that point in 2013.
As the year wound down, Vermont Gas informed the Public Utilities Commission that it had paused its permitting efforts for the Bristol distribution line.
“Whether permitting efforts resume will depend on several factors, including the legal and permitting challenges surrounding the Bristol expansion,” a company spokesperson said.
Even if VGS and the Bristol selectboard prevail, it could be years until Bristol gets natural gas service, Dumont predicted.
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