By ELIZABETH GRIBKOFF
Opponents of a Vermont Gas pipeline want the Public Utility Commission to move forward on an independent investigation of the pipeline construction.
The commission, at the behest of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and concerned citizens, ordered an expert review of the methods and practices used to construct the controversial 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury.
A letter filed last week by Bristol attorney James Dumont on behalf of Hinesburg and Monkton residents says the commission has not confirmed whether the third-party investigation has begun. The letter requests a meeting with the commission, Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service “to get the investigation underway.”
Beth Parent, the spokeswoman for Vermont Gas, says the company will meet with the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Public Safety and the opponents to move forward on the independent investigation. “We remain focused on how we can support an outside expert review,” Parent said in a comment made by email.
“We are confident that the inspections and testing we’ve done have confirmed the overall integrity of the pipeline,” Parent said.
Dumont alleges that photos and other information obtained from Vermont Gas in late July show that the company did not comply with commission requirements.
“The new information again raises the specter that Vermont Gas Systems has placed in jeopardy the safety of the public, the health of Vermont’s wetlands and streams, and the integrity of the commission’s permitting process,” Dumont wrote.
Three months after the pipeline was completed last April, regulators began investigating claims that the pipeline was not buried deep enough. The natural resources agency and the Department of Public Service completed filings this March seeking an expanded investigation into pipeline construction methods.
The “two most critical public safety defenses” for natural gas pipeline construction, according to the federal pipeline are quality control during construction and an intact system — called “cathodic protection” — to prevent corrosion of the pipeline, wrote Dumont. Vermont Gas did not comply with either safety measure, he said in an interview Thursday.
Vermont Gas hired contractors to install the pipeline and did not inspect or require reporting during the construction process, Dumont alleges. Copies of documents obtained in July confirm opponents’ suspicions that Vermont Gas did not follow the construction guidelines spelled out in their certificate of public good, he said.
One of those requirements was that the pipeline be buried with sand or other “approved backfill” — rocks no larger than three inches. Dumont claims that at two of six sites excavated as part of an inspection the pipeline was not buried as required. Photos show that at one site, the pipeline is “enveloped in clay” with no sand bedding.
At another site, the inspection report says that the pipe was “padded in clay, buried with rock.” Photos indicate those rocks are five to six inches long, said Dumont. “Here we have photographic proof that they violated the most basic safety precautions that they committed to follow when they got their permit,” he said.
Parent said the company is “confident that our pipeline is adequately supported in the trench and that is one of the issues the Public Utilities Commission will look at.”
Dumont’s letter alleges that an engineering study shows that Vermont Gas cannot test the effectiveness of the corrosion protection system under 13 percent of the pipeline’s length.
“It looks like that’s the first time the gas company learned, ‘whoops, we can’t check on this,” said Dumont.
Parent said some of the “pipe is buried deep,” and the company will rely on an “internal line inspection” to evaluate corrosion. “This is not unique to VGS – it is true of any pipeline installed at greater depths than standard construction,” she wrote. “That inspection took place last month.”
Sections of the pipeline have “known scratches,” making the corrosion protection system more critical, he said. Dumont says a method used in the installation process known as “horizontal directional drilling” is known to damage the pipeline coating.
“It now appears that at every significant stream crossing, every significant wetland crossing, and throughout Geprags Park [in Hinesburg], the likelihood of coating damage during construction is heightened … but there is no way to know if the protection is working,” Dumont wrote.
Mike Tousley, hearing officer and staff attorney for the Public Utilities Commission, said Friday that an order requesting a status conference would be sent out to the parties. He said the period to file requests for proposals to choose an independent investigator ended Monday.
The PUC only received a proposal from one firm and will not decide whether that firm will lead the investigation until after the status conference, Tousley said.
As for Dumont’s letter, Tousley declined to comment on its allegations. “I think that’s what the purpose of the investigation is — to assess the facts associated with these reports that the intervenors have been sending us for the past couple years.”
The commission is seeking an independent investigator with “a national industry understanding of pipelines,” Tousley said, who can “provide their opinion as to what occurred and what’s actually out there and what that means.”