By Mike Polhamus
Flaws in the one-year-old Vermont Gas Systems Addison County pipeline amount to “widespread, repeated and potentially catastrophic violations of critical public safety requirements,” according to a motion filed with the Public Utility Commission.
The pipeline also was constructed in such a way as to cause potential harm to the wetlands it crosses, the complaint says.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Rachel Smolker, one of six intervenors in the case represented by Bristol attorney James Dumont.
Filed last week, the motion asks for a broadening of the ongoing investigation by the Public Utility Commission into construction practices that went into laying the pipeline. The commission initiated the investigation last summer after Dumont notified state and federal authorities of problems along a section near New Haven, where Vermont Gas had failed to bury the pipeline according to standards set out in its permit.
Dumont said that while pursuing a separate case against Vermont Gas he had obtained documents showing numerous other instances of the company and its contractors failing to follow requirements set out in the permit for the 41-mile pipeline that traverses Hinesburg.
Dumont and his clients intend to ask the PUC “to decide whether or not to order immediate cessation of [the pipeline’s] operation until the pipeline has been excavated and inspected, necessary repairs have been completed and inspected, and the pipeline then is reburied to meet the safety and natural resource protection conditions and specifications upon which the existing [permit] was granted,” his motion states.
Alternately, Dumont will ask the commission to require Vermont Gas to apply for a new permit for the pipeline, since the pipeline that was ultimately built substantially differs from the one described in the permit that authorized its construction, he said.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said “safety is our number one priority.”
Parent said issues Dumont raised in his motion “were in many cases self-reported” to regulators when they occurred. The company worked closely with Vermont’s Department of Public Service and the Public Utility Commission to ensure that the system is safe, she said.
Department of Public Service Public Advocacy Director Jim Porter said the Department of Public Service is likely to file some form of response with the commission.
Claims of safety shortcomings
Dumont’s motion says most of the pipeline fails to meet safety standards required by the pipeline permit.
Among the allegations in the motion are that the pipeline was supposed to be laid on a bed of sand at least six inches deep, and that it was supposed to be covered by another layer of sand at least 12 inches deep, before soil was layered on top.
Records appear to show that Vermont Gas used no sand above or beneath the pipeline during the first two years of construction, Dumont’s motion states. In 2016, the third year of construction, Vermont Gas documented purchases of only 350 cubic yards of sand, according to the motion. The pipeline spans 41 miles from Colchester to Middlebury.
Dumont’s motion also accuses Vermont Gas of failing to compact soil on top of the pipe as required by the permit.
It also states there is no record of Vermont Gas installing zinc corrosion-protection ribbon on the pipeline in high-risk areas where such protection is required by the pipeline’s permit.
The motion also accuses Vermont Gas of improperly laying pipe in swampy areas, and in burying pipe with damaged corrosion-protection coating. Damage to the coating was prevalent on the pipeline, and what repairs contractors performed were buried without further inspection, he said.
Dumont said he was surprised at the extent of the apparent safety violations.
“What we didn’t expect to see was widespread violations of generally accepted safe pipeline construction, and that’s what we found,” Dumont said last week. “That revelation was what caused us to file what we filed.”
“To put into the ground pipeline that has had defective coating without inspecting it, without inspecting the repairs, to do that on a widespread basis is stunning,” he said.
The coating was supposed to have been backed up by a “cathodic protection system” that protects against corrosion by running a very low current of electricity through the pipeline, Dumont said. That system is not yet in place, despite the pipeline having been operational for nearly a year, he said.
Corrosion to a pipeline like this can occur within months according to PHMSA documents, Dumont said. Corrosion is accelerated by sub-par construction practices such as those described in the motion, he said.
“Vermont Gas, after assuring the public and the [Public Utility Commission] they would build this to the highest standards has built it to the lowest standards,” Dumont said. “In fact, they’ve built it without meeting the standards. And these are safety standards. This is not aesthetics, this is not something nice, this is what you need to do to prevent loss of life.”
“Controlled flares” are part of testing
Dumont said Vermont Gas has two weeks to file a response.
In the meantime, Parent said, Vermont Gas is conducting an examination of the entire pipeline for defects or aberrations.
The testing process requires the company to vent some quantity of gas – about $60,000 worth in total – from the pipeline, she said.
The cleanest way to vent this gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and experts within the pipeline industry, is to burn it off using a “controlled flare,” Parent said. The practice leaves no smoke or odors following the flare, she said.
As a result, Vermonters near Middlebury have recently heard and seen flames extending some distance into the air.
This is part of normal work, Parent said. Testing was expected to continue through Tuesday, March 6, but Parent said it had been rescheduled in response to concern by residents about noise.
The Department of Public Service requires that inspections be completed within a year of the pipeline being put into service, and that they be repeated every 5 years thereafter. The pipeline began pumping gas last April.
The $165 million pipeline now has around 600 customers who are either signed up to receive gas or currently receiving it, Parent said.