Regulators Cite Multiple Issues With Vermont Gas Pipeline Construction
State regulators say Vermont Gas failed to comply with its permit and didn't follow its own construction standards when it built its 41-mile natural gas pipeline to Addison County.
The pipeline was finished in 2017 but questions about its construction have persisted for years. The Public Utility Commission has now wrapped up one phase of its investigation. In a detailed order, a commission hearing officer says that the company didn't bury the pipeline as deeply as designed and also failed to have a licensed professional engineer sign off on the project.
Hearing officer Michael Tousley also found that Vermont Gas did not seek approval from the PUC for deviating from the construction plans or for other changes it made to the pipeline’s construction.
“Vermont Gas failed to obtain advance approval from the Commission for either the material deviation from the approved plans or the substantial changes to the project,” Tousley wrote.
“The evidence in this case demonstrates that Vermont Gas did not inform the Commission that it had used the unapproved sink-in-the-swamp method to install the pipeline at less than the required depth in the Clay Plains Swamp in New Haven until nine months after the fact,” he wrote. “The evidence gathered in this investigation also informs the Commission about other alleged unapproved deviations from the plans and evidence.”
"We don't believe there was a safety issue, but there was certainly a compliance issue." - James Porter, Public Service Department
The state Public Service Department, which represents the public in utility issues, asked for the investigation back in 2018, although project opponents had called for a smiliar probe earlier.
“We don't believe there was a safety issue, but there was certainly a compliance issue that the board found in several instances,” said James Porter, the department’s public advocate.
But Tousley's order said safety is a concern. He cited experts hired by the state and the opponents, as well as testimony from VELCO, the state's electric transmission company that allowed its rights-of-way to be used for parts of the pipeline route.
""In their after-the-fact reviews, VELCO [and the outside experts] all acknoweldge that Vermont Gas's failure to property bury the pipeline in the Clay Plains Swamp may affect the safety of the pipeline and create limits on VELCO's use of the right-of-way." he wrote. "In this way, they all support the intervenors' conclusion that the failure to achieve the four-foot burial depth had a potential impact on public health and safety."
"The Public Utility Commission hearing officer has now said, 'yes, some of these have the potential to affect public health and safety.' So it's about time we're finally getting down to this issue." - Rachel Smolker, pipeline opponent
Hinesburg resident Rachel Smolker fought the pipeline for years. She said it's clear safety was compromised.
"And the Public Utility Commission hearing officer has now said, 'yes, some of these have the potential to affect public health and safety.' So it's about time we're finally getting down to this issue."
A spokesperson for Vermont Gas says the company is reviewing the ruling.
"The pipeline is safe and was completed responsibly,” said VGS spokesperson Beth Parent.
Regulators say they will now move to the penalty phase of the proceeding.
Update Feb. 2, 2021, 1:45 pm. The post was updated to include additional material from the order on potential safety impacts, and comment from pipeline opponent.
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