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Activists push for Vermont Gas pipeline penalties

After a state order last week detailed issues with a Vermont Gas pipeline, the company filed with state regulators Wednesday requesting more time to respond.
“Today we’ll be filing for a little more time so we can review the ruling,” Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent told VTDigger on Wednesday.
The Public Utility Commission order found that Vermont Gas had failed to bury the 41-mile natural gas pipeline through Addison County at the 4-foot depth required by a construction permit. The ruling also pointed to the failure of the company to ensure a licensed professional engineer signed off on the construction plan.
“Vermont Gas did not build the project as approved,” the commission wrote, listing five failures that were considered “substantial changes” from the 2013 Final Order.
“It’s just astounding that you could have a major project like this that was constructed without the oversight of an engineer,” said Jim Dumont, an attorney for five area residents who oppose the $165 million pipeline completed in 2017.
Dumont said neighbors have serious safety concerns, especially after the 2018 explosion of a pipeline in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, utilities projects aren’t required to have an engineer sign off on construction plans, while in Vermont they are. The order finds that Vermont Gas didn’t comply with the requirement.
Hinesburg resident Rachel Smolker, who Dumont represents in the case, said she sees a disturbing pattern in the recent construction of pipelines. She described a “slam it in the ground” approach, which she connects to a recent uptick in incidents.
“A lot of corners were cut,” she said. “I really do fear for the people who live close to the pipeline, and I have friends who live within a few hundred feet.”
Asked why an engineer was not involved with planning and construction, Parent declined to reply to specific allegations. “This is an ongoing legal proceeding,” she said. “We will reaffirm our record of safety with the Public Utilities Commission.”
While Vermont Gas is focusing on its past record of safety, pipeline critics are looking ahead to the next round of hearings on potential penalties. They also hope to address the future of the pipeline itself.
“We’re going to be asking that the commission follow the law, and it’s not just a question of how much a penalty you assess; it’s what do we do about the pipeline,” Dumont said.
Hearing officer Michael Tousley is expected to issue a schedule for those proceedings later this month or early March.
Among other problems, Tousley wrote, “The evidence in this case demonstrates that Vermont Gas did not inform the commission that it had used the unapproved sink-in-the-swamp method to install the pipeline at less than the required depth in the Clay Plains Swamp in New Haven until nine months after the fact.”
Now, Smolker said, “the question is what is going to happen, what will be the penalties, what will happen with the industry.”
The latest Public Utility Commission order is “a big step.” Smolker has opposed the pipeline for six years, “gathering more and more information about how the construction of the pipeline was done, how it was supposed to be done.”
“It’s a long fight and an outcome that, you know, we’re pretty pleased with,” she said. In particular, Smolker said this case could halt other pipeline construction projects Vermont Gas might undertake, including one south of Middlebury.
Given the irregularities of the case, Smolker said, “I think they’d have a hard time getting a permit to do that now.”
At this point, no final decision has been made. Tousley will make recommendations to the PUC about what penalties would be appropriate.
Parent pointed out that in the four years the pipeline has been operating the company has delivered gas safely.
Critics of the project are skeptical of future safety.
Dumont said there are concerns about electrocution, given that the pipeline runs next to a high-voltage line.
“I’d hate to see that we have to wait until something catastrophic happens,” Smolker said. “That’s part of why I haven’t been able to give up on this. Once you’re burdened with the knowledge of all this mismanagement, you feel a responsibility.”

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