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Gas pipeline found closer to surface than ordered

State says investigation warranted

By Mike Polhamus 

For VT Digger

Vermont Gas Systems didn’t bury its controversial natural gas pipeline as deeply as it was supposed to, but the company and the state Department of Public Service say that doesn’t pose a problem.

The department says Vermont Gas should be allowed to leave the pipeline as is. However, DPS officials want an investigation into why the company didn’t abide by its permit.

The 41-mile pipeline leading into Addison County was to be buried at least 4 feet deep in most places. However, contractors put it under as little as 3 feet of soil in at least 18 locations along a 2,500-foot section near New Haven, according to documents the Public Service Department filed with the Public Service Board.

DPS staffers say the pipeline remains safe as long as Vermont Gas marks and monitors the segment where it’s less than 4 feet below the surface. The department has recommended that the board investigate how the deviation from the permit came about.

An attorney for a group that has opposed the pipeline said its entire length needs to be reviewed to see if it’s closer to the surface than intended in other areas.

Pipeline opponents say the extra foot of depth is needed to ensure that vehicles and farm machinery don’t damage it, and to insulate the pipeline from high-voltage electric lines nearby.

Vermont Gas attorneys contend that the 3-foot depth constitutes a “nonsubstantial change” from the pipeline’s permit. They have asked the Public Service Board to alter the permit retroactively so it authorizes the burial depth Vermont Gas actually used.

Both Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service agree the pipeline as it exists meets all applicable state and federal safety standards.

But while Vermont Gas argued to the Public Service Board that the change isn’t substantial, DPS special counsel Timothy Duggan described it in sharper terms.

“A material deviation from the approved plans has likely occurred” as a result of the change, Duggan said in his department’s filing to the PSB, and an investigation is warranted.

The investigation would look into why the permit wasn’t strictly followed, not whether the pipeline itself is safe, said Jim Porter, the director of the DPS’ Public Advocacy Division.

“It’s almost a technical violation, is what we’re looking at,” Porter said, “but we do want to know why they deviated” from the permit’s terms.

“Fortunately, in this instance, we don’t think there’s a safety concern,” Porter said.

Porter said the pipeline is buried deeply enough to meet federal and state safety standards. The 4-foot depth was included in the pipeline’s permit through an agreement between VGS and Vermont Electric Power Co. for pipeline buried in the utility’s right of way, he said.

On June 26, Vermont Gas filed a response to the DPS memo that recommended an investigation. The incident doesn’t warrant an investigation, Vermont Gas attorney Owen McClain said, arguing that the difference between what the permit allowed and what was built “is not material.”

It was only by coincidence that the mistake was brought to regulators’ attention, said Jim Dumont, an attorney for several of the pipeline’s opponents.

A piece of heavy machinery stuck in a boggy section of the pipeline’s route brought onlookers to the site, Dumont said. They discovered that sections of the pipeline were buried with as little as 1.5 feet of soil, according to him.

Dumont said that depth would violate federal and state standards, and he called for an independent inspection of the entire pipeline to ensure it’s safe.

But the Department of Public Service has told state regulators that the pipeline is no less than 3 feet below the surface along its entire length. Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent also said it is buried no shallower than 3 feet, although in the 18 locations already identified it was supposed to be 4 feet.

Parent said Vermont Gas is pleased that DPS agrees the pipeline is safe, and said the deviation from the permit “did not and does not represent a substantial change.” Parent said no investigation is needed but that the company would cooperate if one is begun.