Vt. Gas Takes Financial Hit, Pipeline Protests Continue

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Residents of Hinesburg continue to protest the Vt. Gas pipeline in their community. Burlington Free Press

Since its proposal in 2012, Vermont Gas Systems’ ongoing pipeline project has drawn criticism from concerned Vermonters and environmental activists alike. This new 41-mile pipeline is an extension of an already existing natural gas pipeline between Canada and Chittenden County. Vermont Gas states that the new pipeline will carry natural gas through both Chittenden and Addison Counties until it reaches Middlebury, Vermont. 

Over four years later, many of the pipeline’s opponents have persistent concerns. On Wednesday, Feb. 8, over 30 protesters stood outside of the Vermont Gas headquarters in South Burlington. The protesters called on the company to halt construction while the Vermont Supreme Court hears a case regarding a land rights issue and federal authorities from The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) investigate “reported concerns regarding the safety and integrity of the Vermont Gas System Addison Natural Gas Project.”

The Vermont Supreme Court case stems from an eminent domain issue taking place in Hinesburg — a small town located 12 miles south of Burlington. In February 2016, residents were surprised by reports that revealed that Vermont Gas had started work on the pipeline near the town’s northern border.

By Feb. 15, residents learned that they had only 48 hours to file a motion to intervene in Vermont Gas’ eminent domain request through Geprags Community Park. While residents were successful in persuading the Public Service Board to grant an extension on filing a motion, the board granted Vermont Gas access to build the pipeline under Geprags Park in Sept. 2016.

“It would have been naïve to think that the PSB would rule in our favor. Throughout the history of this project, the board has consistently given VGS whatever they want,” said Hinesburg resident Rachel Smolker following the decision.

Since then, residents of Hinesburg have created a movement against Vermont Gas Systems’ ongoing pipeline project that has drawn support throughout Vermont and neighboring states.

The fears of pipeline opponents extend beyond the issue of eminent domain. VT Digger reported that Vermont Gas issued a statement earlier this month acknowledging that they “did not prudently plan and manage” the early stages of the pipeline extension projection.

The Public Service Board resolved to penalize Vermont Gas by imposing a cap on the company’s income until 2019.

“Vermont Gas may earn no more than an 8.5 percent return on its capital assets through 2019…[as] the appropriate financial penalty for the impact of VGS’ imprudence,” according to VT Digger.

Although environmental advocates and pipeline opponents welcomed PSB’s decision, Sandy Levine — a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation — told VT Digger that “the gas pipeline remains a bungled project and a bad choice for Vermont. When smart investors are running from a fossil fuel future, Vermonters should not be yoked to this outdated, polluting and expensive pipeline.”

Vermont Gas’ troubles are not limited to financial penalties imposed by the Public Service Board. In August 2016, the Department of Public Service filed a “Notice of Probable Violation” with VGS, claiming the company failed to comply with various standards regarding electrical safety. In response, the PHMSA has committed its “wielding and corrosion experts” to investigating VGS’ construction practices.

Beth Parent, a spokesperson for Vermont Gas, issued a statement pertaining to the federal investigation, stating that VGS “will work very closely with the Department of Public Service, our state regulators, and our federal regulators to ensure that all safety standards are met or exceeded.”

Despite the growing concerns and resistance, the pipeline is scheduled to be completed by early April. Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall says that he is “very proud of the work from [his] team at Vermont Gas…we reset the project, got it back on track, and we’re now on the verge of completing it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the pipeline would carry natural gas through both Chittenden and Addison Counties until it reached Ticonderoga, NY. In fact, the Addison Pipeline project will end in Middlebury, Vermont. The extension to New York was cancelled in February 2015.

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