Gas Pipeline Opponents Allege Improper Talks Between Safety Investigator And Company
Opponents of a natural gas pipeline in Addison County say an investigation of the pipeline’s construction was flawed by improper communication between the investigator and the gas company.
The 41-mile Addison natural gas pipeline was finished in 2017. But questions persist about whether it was built according to the designs submitted to regulators. Those questions include whether it was buried to the proper depth in certain areas such as wetlands.
Vermont's Public Utility Commission hired an independent engineer to study the issue. In a lengthy report submitted early this year, engineer William Byrd largely validated the pipeline’s construction. But now opponents and their lawyer have alleged that the report was not as independent as claimed.
Bristol lawyer James Dumont said in filing with the PUC that he uncovered “deeply disturbing and yet overwhelming evidence” that Vermont Gas lawyers and Byrd engaged in ex parte communication – that is, talks that did not involve all the legal parties.
"Mr. Byrd, Vermont Gas Systems, Inc., and Vermont Gas Systems' lawyers secretly engaged in ongoing, substantive and voluminous ex parte communications about both the merits of the investigation ... and how the investigation should be conducted." — James Dumont, lawyer for pipeline opponents
“From the opening of the investigation until its conclusion, Mr. Byrd assured Intervenors, the Hearing Officer and the other parties that no ex parte communications were occurring and the process was and would be completely open and transparent,” Dumont wrote. “From the opening of the investigation until its conclusion, Mr. Byrd, Vermont Gas Systems, Inc., and Vermont Gas Systems’ lawyers secretly engaged in ongoing, substantive and voluminous ex parte communications about both the merits of the investigation (the conclusions Mr. Byrd should reach and how he should reach them) and how the investigation should be conducted.”
Dumont asked the PUC to strike much of the Byrd report and to sanction the gas company and its lawyers. Vermont Gas, through its law firm. Sheehey Furlong & Behm, strongly refuted Dumont’s argument.
The lawyers said nothing wrong happened, and that the opponents were told up front that the investigator and the company would be in direct communication.
“This untimely attempt to undermine VGS’s cooperation and participation in this process has no merit based in fact or law,” Debra Bouffard, the Vermont Gas lawyer, said in a letter to the PUC.
“The accusations in the [Dumont] filing contradict written communications from Mr. Byrd to Attorney Dumont and other parties expressly stating in advance, in writing, that Mr. Byrd planned to contact VGS and other parties directly for certain portions of the investigation, including to obtain relevant information, schedule visits, and conduct interviews,” she said.
"This untimely attempt to undermine VGS's cooperation and participation in this process has no merit based in fact or law." — Debra Bouffard, Vermont Gas lawyer
But Rachel Smolker, a scientist and activist from Hinesburg who has fought the pipeline for years, said the internal emails show that the investigator and Vermont Gas held private discussions and worked together to shape the report’s outcome.
“I was frankly just blown away by this,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it. It almost seems as if they didn’t even understand that these communications they were having were inappropriate.”
Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers, said they will file a more complete response with the PUC at a later date.