By Mike Polhamus
Technical questions about the construction of Vermont Gas Systems’ recently completed 41-mile natural gas pipeline were the subject of a public hearing in Bristol, but opponents at the hearing raised broader issues about the pipeline, the fuel it carries, and the company itself.
The pipeline stretches from Colchester to Middlebury and passes through Hinesburg, where it sparked citizen opposition and legal challenges.
At last week’s hearing, two issues were at play in the Public Utility Commission: whether the company should be penalized for failing to bury the pipeline as deeply as it had agreed to, and whether it should be sanctioned for several alleged safety violations that occurred while a contractor blasted rock during construction.
PUC hearing officer Michael Tousley, who stood in for the commission at the meeting, made no decisions but simply took testimony.
Of the two issues, the pipeline’s burial depth appeared to most provoke the pipeline critics who spoke at the hearing.
Vermont Gas was supposed to bury the pipeline at least four feet deep in some areas, but buried it under as little as three feet of earth in those same areas. The company identified 18 separate sections of pipeline in a half-mile stretch where the pipeline was too close to the surface.
Vermont Gas claims the pipeline is no less safe than it would be if it were buried to the 4-foot depth the company had agreed to in the construction permit. The deviation, VGS representatives say, isn’t “substantial.”
That’s an important term: If the change is insubstantial, Vermont Gas will likely be required to do no more than file additional paperwork. If it is a substantial deviation from what the company agreed to do, then fines or other sanctions could result.
The PUC held the hearing to help members of the commission determine whether the change was actually substantial.
At stake in that case is damage to trees that a Vermont Gas contractor allegedly caused while blasting rock in the pipeline’s path, and safety measures that the contractor allegedly omitted. Trees on land near the pipeline were damaged by flying rock that the VGS contractor allegedly dislodged with explosives.
The pipeline was completed in April, and VGS spokeswoman Beth Parent said this week that it’s currently carrying gas to 600 customers in Addison County.
The pipeline cost nearly double what Vermont Gas originally told state regulators, but Vermont Department of Public Service officials have maintained that even at the higher cost it represents a worthwhile economic driver for the state.
Testimony at the hearing in Bristol began with Eileen Simollardes, Vermont Gas Systems’ vice president of regulatory affairs, conducting a two-hour question-and-answer session with a crowd that several times directed wry laughter at responses of hers that were not intended to be humorous.
Some of the questions were highly technical, such as those during an exchange between Simollardes and pipeline opponent Melanie Peyser, who sought to know, among other things, on what authority nitrogen gas had been pumped into the pipeline before it went into service.
Many of the remarks weren’t questions but rather accusations or complaints. One man said blasting for the pipeline had fractured the foundation of his brother’s home and that the company had flooded his field by blocking his drainage ditch.
Another man, Lawrence Shelton, said he saw the pipeline the day before it was buried insufficiently deep and took photos of it. Shelton described the company’s construction practices as “reckless” and called for a “comprehensive investigation, end to end,” to determine what other problems the pipeline might have.
Both cases are likely to continue into the spring, according to a schedule set by the PUC.
Vermont Gas is one of two Vermont subsidiaries of the $7 billion Quebec company Gaz Métro, the other being the state’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power.