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Investigator’s report clears Vt. Gas pipeline

What we saw time and again, regardless of whether it’s a safety issue or not a safety issue, (Vermont Gas) didn’t follow the plans they submitted to the Public Utilities Commission.
— Attorney Jim Dumont

VERMONT — An independent investigator hired by the state found the Addison County Natural Gas Pipeline to be “generally” in compliance with state and federal requirements with a few exceptions.
In a report filed this past Wednesday with the state Public Utility Commission, the investigator confirmed that construction plans for the pipeline were not stamped by a professional engineer and that parts of the pipeline under a swamp were not buried as deeply as required.
But the report also says that Vermont Gas “was diligent in their efforts” to comply with state regulators and federal safety regulations, often exceeding those standards.
Three months after the pipeline was completed in April 2017, the state Public Utility Commission (PUC) began looking into claims that the pipeline was not buried deep enough. The state’s Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Public Service requested last year to expand the investigation into pipeline construction methods and operation.
James Dumont, a Bristol attorney representing five Monkton and Hinesburg residents who oppose the pipeline, filed a motion in November 2018 to expand the investigation further to assess whether a professional engineer had signed off on the pipeline construction plans.
The $165 million pipeline runs 41 miles from Colchester to Middlebury, where natural gas is injected into the company’s smaller, low-pressure distribution lines and carried to customers.
The exhaustive report is a critical component for the PUC’s decision, but the investigation is far from over.
Mike Tousley, PUC hearing officer for the case, said the commission will convene a hearing about whether Vermont Gas violated its certificate of public good after an opportunity for further rounds of discovery. The commission will then decide whether to levy penalties against the utility.
The commission brought in William Byrd of RCP Inc., a Houston-based engineering firm, to independently investigate the Addison County pipeline. Byrd was tasked with looking at whether the utility had followed all the requirements of its state-issued certificate of public good, buried the pipeline deep enough at stream crossings and swampy ground, and whether it had received a professional engineer’s stamp, among other tasks.
Separately, the Department of Public Service issued a notice of probable violation in 2016 over worker safety requirements for the portion of the pipeline built in an electrical transmission corridor, for which the utility paid $95,000. And the department issued another notice of probable violation regarding pipeline burial and trench breaker installation in 2018 that is still open pending the results of this investigation.
Byrd, having reviewed thousands of pages of inspection reports, said in his report that the pipeline was “thoroughly and competently designed and engineered” with comprehensive inspection by multiple parties.
“With a few noted exceptions, it was constructed in compliance with applicable rules and commitments, and in many important respects it significantly exceeds the typical requirements,” he wrote.
One exception was that the pipeline construction plans were not stamped by a professional engineer at the time of construction — as required by state law. The National Transportation Safety Board review of the Lawrence, Mass., natural gas explosions recommended that professional engineers stamp pipeline plans.
But Byrd said in his report that the plans had been prepared by and under the supervision of Vermont engineering firms.
“I have seen no evidence that the engineering or design work for the ANGP was deficient, was not performed by competent engineers, or posed a risk to ‘public health, safety, and welfare,’” he wrote.
Byrd stated that the pipeline had been adequately buried at stream crossings but was not buried at the mandated 4 feet in a transmission right of way through a clay plain swamp in New Haven. However, he wrote that an engineering analysis of the pipe in that section show that trucks with the VELCO electric power line company should still be able to safely drive over it.
The investigator had seven recommendations for the utility, including installing warning signs about the “shallow pipe” by the transmission corridor, three-year inspections of the pipe depth in agricultural areas, and inspection of the 15 road crossings for evidence of frost heaves or potholing that could affect the pipeline.
Don Rendall, CEO of Vermont Gas, in a prepared statement said that the utility was “so pleased that the Public Utility Commission’s independent expert investigation validates the work VGS has done to construct a safe, quality pipeline to Addison County.” He added that the investigator’s recommendations, along with the company’s pipeline management plans, will continue to ensure safety into the future.
Dumont, attorney for the intervenors, said Byrd’s report differed dramatically from an assessment by Charlotte-based Liebert Engineering, whom the plaintiffs hired to review the matter.
“The PUC order approving of the whole pipeline said explicitly, you shall build the pipeline in accordance with the plans you gave us,” he said. “And what we saw time and again, regardless of whether it’s a safety issue or not a safety issue, they didn’t follow the plans they submitted to the PUC.”
Jim Porter, director of public advocacy for the Department of Public Safety, said that while the department was still reviewing the report, the investigator had examined “every issue” brought by the intervenors and other parties.
“We very much think that the report speaks for itself in underscoring the safety of the pipeline and the integrity with which it was constructed,” he said.

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