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Guest Column: State grants Vermont Gas park access amidst violations and subterfuge

By Rachel Smolker

As anticipated, the Public Service Board granted an easement across Geprags Park in Hinesburg for the natural gas pipeline project on Nov. 3. More than 200 Vermonters attended an Oct. 20 nonviolent protest. Vermont Gas has agreed to drill under the park, and they assert there will be “no impact.” But we have already witnessed how drilling can and does go awry, as has occurred elsewhere along the route, spewing a lethal slurry of “inadvertent return” over the landscape. 

Citizens are appealing the eminent domain case to the Supreme Court. We now wait to find out if the Court will allow construction to proceed even before the appeal is decided upon.

Meanwhile, back in August, Vermont Gas was served with a “Notice of Probable Violation,” alleging their failure to comply with minimal standards for safe construction in proximity to high-voltage electric wires. This is a major concern because of induced voltage, which can cause the pipes to conduct electricity and therefore pose a risk to workers or anyone who contacts the pipes while above ground. The pipes are mostly buried now, but the longer-term risk from induced voltage is corrosion — the major cause of pipeline leaks — and explosions.

For scintillating bedtime reading, see the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America report “Criteria for Pipelines Co-Existing with Electric Power Lines.” This industry report notes, among factors, that co-location of pipelines with electric wires for distances greater than 5,000 meters (less than a mile), is considered a “high risk.” Through Hinesburg and neighboring towns, we are host to nearly 11 miles of co-located pipeline.

Another factor that contributes to the risk is the amount of voltage carried in the overhead wires. VELCO has clearly stated that they intend to expand in the future. Vermont Gas was allowed to continue construction through Hinesburg and all along Phase I of the project from June (when the inspector first noted probable violations) through until now. Vermont Gas was granted three extensions, while apparently engaged in “extensive communications” with the Department of Public Service.  On Nov. 9, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service was released. That document refers to “extensive communications” (not public ones) and states that “both parties made specific compromises to come to agreements” (who knows)?

They go on to “agree” that the MOU “fully resolves the notice of probable violation…and any related potential violations that may have continued up to and including the date of this MOU.”   In sum: with the complicity of our Department of Public Service, Vermont Gas has wiped its hands clean of any allegations, behind closed doors and with no public accountability. We are now left to wonder if the pipeline was constructed in compliance with even the bare minimum safety standards.

A coalition of Vermont organizations representing thousands of Vermonters filed a request to the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration, requesting that they step in and review the project. The parallels between what is happening in Vermont and the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors resistance to Dakota Access Pipeline are remarkable. In mid-November, a van full of tools and cold weather gear was loaded and “sent off” from Geprags Park. A small gesture of solidarity across the land.

Rachel Smolker, a Hinesburg resident, is a member of Protect Geprags Park, a group opposing the Vermont Gas pipeline on the basis that it violates the park’s covenant when it was donated as public land to the town by the Geprags sisters in 1992.