Group asks state to expand investigation of Vermont Gas pipeline construction

By XANDER LANDEN
VTDIGGER.ORG

Opponents of a 41-mile Vermont Gas pipeline that runs between Middlebury and Colchester – and through Hinesburg – are asking state regulators to expand their investigation into the line’s construction.

In a motion filed with the Public Utility Commission last week, James Dumont, an attorney representing residents in Monkton and Hinesburg, said he wants the commission to determine whether an independent licensed engineer signed off on the company’s plans to build the natural gas pipeline.

Vermont Gas Systems, however, says it has followed all regulations and the pipeline is safe.

Regulators already are investigating the pipeline. Three months after the pipeline’s completion in April, the state began looking into claims that the pipeline had not been buried deep enough.

Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Public Service submitted filings in March seeking to expand the investigation into pipeline construction methods.

Last week, Dumont asked the Public Utility Commission to go further and determine whether a licensee had signed off on the Addison Natural Gas Project before construction moved forward.

Dumont’s filing claims that Vermont law requires a licensed professional engineer to sign off on utility engineering plans and assume “professional responsibility for the work” before the plans are submitted to or carried out by gas companies.

Dumont alleges that the plans, which were drawn up by the Albany-based engineering firm Clough Harbour and Associates, lack a signature from a state licensee. The plans only contain the initials of “various unidentified engineers,” he wrote.

“No Vermont licensee was identified as having responsibility for any part of the plans, much less overall responsibility,” Dumont wrote.

Eileen Simollardes is vice president of regulatory affairs for Vermont Gas. She said in a phone interview that there was no requirement for the company to seek a professional engineer’s signature on its plans ahead of construction.

“They were in fact designed by a national engineering firm, but there’s no requirement in that PUC permitting process that those plans be signed off on prior to construction by an engineer,”

Simollardes said.

She stressed that the company is confident in the safety of its pipeline. “I think the important thing here is those pipeline plans were thoroughly vetted numerous times by the PUC and we have confidence in the engineering firm that did that work,” she said.

Dumont’s motion references a report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board this month on a series of natural gas pipeline explosions in northeastern Massachusetts in September that destroyed five homes, injured 21 people and killed one.

According to the NTSB report, the pipeline’s operator did not seek the seal of approval from a licensed professional engineer before construction. Massachusetts does not require such approval on public utility projects, but the NTSB recommended the state consider changing its laws.

“The seal of a [professional engineer] should be required on all public utility engineering plans to reduce the likelihood of accidents such as this occurring,” the report states.

Dumont believes the Vermont Gas pipeline poses a risk to the public similar to the Massachusetts pipeline. “I think the risk is comparable if not greater because what we’ve seen so far is a construction process that is chaos,” he said in an interview.

Simollardes said the comparison with the Massachusetts pipeline is an “inaccurate characterization.”

“I’ll stand by our safety record,” she said.

Dumont has alleged that Vermont Gas violated basic safety precautions and failed to meet requirements of its construction permit, including pipeline burial material and corrosion prevention. The state is contracting with a third-party investigator to look into Dumont’s claims.

Vermont Gas maintains that the pipeline was installed properly and that it is committed to cooperating with the state’s investigation.

“I am confident about the safety of this pipeline and we will do whatever the PUC finds will be helpful to address any lingering questions that anybody might have,” Simollardes said.

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