Legal filings keep Vt. Gas at bay
By Jess Wisloski
More than 200 protesters amassed at Geprags Park last Thursday morning before marching down Shelburne Falls Road and taking over a staging area on private land that was set up for the Vermont Gas pipeline project.
“We just have to keep doing this time and time again so we can beat it through their heads that this is the wrong way to go,” said Nate Palmer, a Monkton farmer who fought Vermont Gas’s efforts to seize his land for pipeline construction, to the hundreds of protesters, young and old.
A collection of groups were represented including Protect Geprags Park, 350 Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Central Vermont Climate Action.
“I’m really getting sick of hearing Chris Recchia [commissioner of the Department of Public Service] saying it’s a vocal minority that’s against it,” Palmer said, speaking of the oversight body’s standard response to complaints about the ratepayer-funded infrastructure project.
In a press statement, Beth Parent, spokesperson for Vermont Gas echoed, “Last Thursday’s demonstration was more of the same from a group of individuals who are opposed to a cleaner, more affordable energy for their neighbors. There will most certainly be added costs associated with the delay,” she noted.
The gathering began at 8 a.m., at the public park. The park has been a hotbed of controversy since March, when community members discovered the town’s selectboard had given Vermont Gas the go-ahead to bury a natural gas pipeline through the park, in exchange for some service offerings, in a closed-door meeting.
Only 2,200 feet of the 41-mile Addison Natural Gas Project pipeline is left to be completed, according to Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Parent. That section traverses Geprags Park, where the utility is currently attempting to secure an easement through eminent domain.
While the group moved peacefully down the hill toward the private land where Vermont Gas has set up a staging area at around 9:45 a.m., by 11 a.m. Hinesburg Police had issued a dispersement order, saying the protesters were trespassing on private property.
“Six people were arrested with charges of unlawful restraint, criminal trespass, and disorderly conduct. The individuals from Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire were taken to the Hinesburg Police station where they were cited and released,” the police department said in a release.
Park fight halting completion
The arrests are among the smallest of the legal conflicts to arise from the gas pipeline’s construction in the area. Currently, an appeal to the Public Service Board holds the completion of the pipeline in the balance, after protesters sought to overturn an order that granted Vermont Gas a right-of-way through the Geprags Park parcel. They plan to take the case to the Vermont Supreme Court if the Public Service Board again rules against them.
Becuase of the appeal, the protesters weren’t actually stopping any construction on Thursday, Hinesburg Police Chief Frank Koss pointed out.
“They’ve been kind of saying ‘We’re stopping work,’ when actually in reality, no they’re not,” said Koss, standing outside the protest. He was the only officer on the scene at the time the march from Geprags to the Vermont Gas site started, warning protestors they could be arrested as they filed past. Within a few hours, he was joined by four other officers at the staging area site, and Vermont Gas workers stood by and watched the protest. Koss said the problem was that the protestors were trespassing on private land and refused to disperse when asked.
New federal complaint
Days before the protest at Geprags, another legal attack was announced: a coalition of groups that have vocally opposed the pipeline filed a complaint with a federal agency alleging that Vermont’s Department of Public Service (DPS) overlooked repeated safety violations during the pipeline’s construction. It demands the agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, step in and provide oversight given Vermont DPS’ failures.
DPS Commissioner Chris Recchia told Vermont Digger the accusations in the complaint were entirely unfounded and it was a “last-ditch” attempt to scuttle the pipeline.
“One thing I am sure of is this pipeline has been constructed safely, and professionally, and it meets all the standards that need to be met in terms of safety for the public,” Recchia said. “Anyone who says something to the contrary is distorting the truth in order to achieve their objective, and that’s really unfortunate.”
Public Service failing public?
The organizations submitted a letter last Monday detailing a pattern of lax enforcement by the state, and accused DPS officials of failing to halt work on the project in spite of repeated safety violations. Recchia says the letter actually shows DPS officials were doing their jobs and responding appropriately to ensure that the pipeline is properly built.
The letter stated, as evidence of the department’s poor oversight, that the officials found 183 violations during 2015 by the company responsible for the pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems, which is owned by Quebec’s Gaz Metro. It took administrative action on 13 of those violations. Recchia said nearly all of those violations actually involved propane, not the natural gas that the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline will contain, and only six of those involved Vermont Gas Systems in any way.
Hinesburg protester Cisco Del Fuego said he thinks the DPS must be held accountable for failing the public in terms of representing them instead of the utility.
“They’re tools of the governor, whose political ambitions were to engage with a company that’s greedy for profits from the fossil fuel industry,” said Delfuego, who works with Protect Geprags. “The Department of Public Service has nothing to do with service to the public,” he said.
In another of a set of pipeline legal battles, two landowners who were confronted by Vermont Gas when the company wanted to seize their land for the pipeline said the Department of Public Service offered no help or guidance to them when it came down to dealing with the company and the threat of eminent domain for the project, according to Nate Palmer, of Monkton, and Kari Cuneo. In Palmer’s case, he and neighbors succeeded in having the company reroute the pipeline away from their land.
For Cuneo, who had lived in Williston, her family was one of 164 that fought proceedings by Vermont Gas to condemn their land for use to build the pipeline.
“We continue to fight, and this is one way I feel like we can fight,” said Cuneo, a mother of four, at the demonstration. Her family finally gave up on saving their home and 10 acres this summer — at the threat of being undervalued in an eminent domain seizure if they didn’t. They relocated to St. George, but lost money and a sense of security in the process.
“It was just devastating for us. We ended up having to pay more money than we sold our house for [to buy again], and now we’re struggling. I guess someone could say, at least you’re not on the pipeline now, and at least they settled with you, but that’s not how we look at it still.”
Information from an Oct. 18 Vermont Digger story, “Vermont Gas pipeline opponents file safety complaint with federal agency,” was used in this article.