September 23, 2018

Independent investigation of VT Gas pipeline requested

James Dumont. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

By Elizabeth Gribkoff

For VTDigger

Opponents of a Vermont Gas pipeline want the Public Utility Commission to move forward on an independent investigation of the pipeline construction.

The PUC, at the behest of the Agency of Natural Resources and concerned citizens, ordered an expert review of the methods and practices used to construct the controversial 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury.

A letter filed last Wednesday with the PUC by Bristol-based attorney James Dumont on behalf of Hinesburg and Monkton residents says the PUC has not confirmed whether the third-party investigation has begun. The letter requests a meeting with the PUC, Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service “to get the investigation underway.”

Beth Parent, a spokeperson for Vermont Gas, says the company will meet with the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Public Safety and the opponents to move forward on the independent investigation.

“We remain focused on how we can support an outside expert review,” Parent said in a comment made by email. “We are confident that the inspections and testing we’ve done have confirmed the overall integrity of the pipeline.”

Dumont alleges that photos and other information obtained from Vermont Gas in late July show that the company did not comply with PUC requirements.

“The new information again raises the specter that Vermont Gas Systems has placed in jeopardy the safety of the public, the health of Vermont’s wetlands and streams, and the integrity of the commission’s permitting process,” Dumont wrote.

Three months after the pipeline was completed in April of 2017, regulators began investigating claims that the pipeline was not buried deep enough. The Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Service completed filings last March seeking an expanded investigation into pipeline construction methods.

The “two most critical public safety defenses” for natural gas pipeline construction, according to federal guidelines, are quality control during construction and an intact system — called “cathodic protection” — to prevent corrosion of the pipeline, wrote Dumont. Vermont Gas did not comply with either safety measure, he said in an interview last Thursday.

Vermont Gas hired contractors to install the pipeline and did not inspect or require reporting during the construction process, Dumont alleges. Copies of documents obtained in July confirm opponents’ suspicions that Vermont Gas did not follow the construction guidelines spelled out in the company’s Certificate of Public Good, he said.

One of those requirements was that the pipeline be buried with sand or other “approved backfill” — e.g. rocks no larger than 3 inches. Dumont claims that at two of six sites excavated as part of an inspection, the pipeline was not buried as required. Photos show that at one site, the pipeline is “enveloped in clay” with no sand bedding.

At another site, the inspection report says, the pipe was “padded in clay, buried with rock.” Photos indicate those rocks are 5-6 inches long, said Dumont.

“Here we have photographic proof that they violated the most basic safety precautions that they committed to follow when they got their permit,” he said.

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