Department of Public Service asks state to expand gas pipeline investigation

By XANDER LANDEN
VTDIGGER.ORG

The Department of Public Service has joined opponents of a 41-mile natural gas pipeline in asking the state to expand its investigation of the line’s construction.

In a motion filed with the Public Utility Commission last month, James Dumont, an attorney representing residents in Monkton and Hinesburg, asked the Public Utility Commission to determine whether an independent licensed engineer signed off on Vermont Gas’ plans to build the natural gas pipeline that runs between Middlebury and Colchester.

The state already approved an investigation into the pipeline’s construction after Dumont alleged that the process did not comply with state guidelines, and that the pipeline poses safety risks.

The Public Utility Commission is in the process of retaining a third-party investigator to look into whether the pipeline’s construction met proper requirements.

But Dumont asked the state to expand the scope of its investigation after the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on the natural gas pipeline explosions in northeastern Massachusetts in September that destroyed five homes, injured 21 people and killed one.

In its report, the NTSB said that the Massachusetts pipeline operator did not seek the seal of approval from a licensed professional engineer before construction. The agency stressed that such signatures should be required on all public utility engineering plans “to reduce the likelihood of accidents such as this occurring.”

Dumont says that Vermont Gas did not obtain the signature of a professional engineer on its construction plans for the pipeline, and alleges that by failing to do so, the utility broke state law.

On Dec. 4, the Department of Public Service wrote in filing with the Public Utilities Commission agreeing that the state should expand its investigation to look into the matter.

James Porter, the director for public advocacy at the department, wrote that the Vermont Board of Professional Engineering administrative rules have been revised in recent years and that their “proper application will require consultation” with authorities who have jurisdiction and knowledge of them.

“In light of these considerations, and in the interest of ensuring the continued integrity of the pipeline, the Department takes the position that this matter warrants further investigation,” Porter wrote.

Vermont Gas, which has stressed it is confident in the safety of the pipeline, said that expanding the investigation is unnecessary.

In a filing with the Public Utilities Commission last week, the company says the investigation already encompasses “a review of all construction-related documents.”

“We believe that the commission proceeding is already broad enough to allow a review of construction documentation,” the company’s spokesperson Beth Parent said in an interview Thursday. She added that the construction of the pipeline has already been “thoroughly reviewed” by the commission on three separate occasions.

In its filing, the company’s attorney, Debra Bouffard, wrote that Vermont Gas is not aware of a provision that would have required the utility to file plans for permitting or construction of the pipeline that were stamped and sealed by a professional engineer.

But Dumont says that state law clearly outlines that a signature from a state licensee is required on utility construction plans.

Vermont law requires that a licensed professional engineer 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, he maintains.

“They’re saying their regular practice is they don’t comply with the law,” he said.

Dumont says he expects the PUC to decide whether to expand the investigation this month.

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