Construction continues in Williston
By Matt Sutkoski
Construction of Phase 1 of a Vermont Gas Systems extension from Chittenden to Addison County appears to be continuing unaffected, at least in Williston, despite last week’s court decision that adds uncertainty to the project.
The Vermont Supreme Court granted a Vermont Public Service Board request that would allow the board to reopen a review of the project, even though construction has been underway for months.
Unexpectedly high costs are to blame. Vermont Gas said in July the project would cost 40 percent more than originally budgeted. The overall cost of the pipeline rose to $121.6 million from $86.6 million.
The Supreme Court decision might ultimately mean nothing. The Public Service Board can, but doesn’t have to, review the project again. And even if it does, the panel might not make any changes to its original approval.
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark did not return phone calls from the Williston Observer seeking comment. Vermont Gas Project Manager Charlie Pughe also did not return phone calls seeking comment by the Observer’s press deadline.
However, Wark told Vermont Public Radio last week that the company would move forward and that he is confident the pipeline would bring economic and environmental benefits to Vermonters, even with the cost increases.
“Vermont Gas continues to hear from Vermonters that they want the same benefits from Natural Gas that Chittenden and Franklin Counties have enjoyed for decades,” Wark said in a July 31 press release. “We are thrilled to help people cut their heating bills and grow jobs, using a cleaner fuel in the process.”
The Conservation Law Foundation isn’t so sure about the benefits of the project. In mid-July, Sandra Levine, a senior attorney with the CLF, asked the Public Service Board to stop construction and review the pipeline again.
The Board asked the Vermont Supreme Court if it could do that, and last week, the High Court said such a move would be legal. Levine said a new review is welcome.
“The significant cost increase shows that support for the project is fading,” Levine told the Williston Observer. “It was approved by the Public Service Board based on the thin support that it would provide benefits to Vermonters. The cost increase shows those benefits are diminishing. This continues to be a project that extends Vermonters’ reliance on fossil fuels and will saddle Vermonters with higher costs and more pollution for generations.”
A staging area for the pipeline project is at the former Williston Driving Range property on U.S. 2, just east of Maple Tree Place.
The site, and other points along the pipeline, have been the scene of occasional protests against the pipeline by affected landowners and organizations like Rising Tide Vermont, which objects to the project on environmental grounds.
The most recent demonstration was on Tuesday, when two men chained themselves to a part of the gas pipeline construction near Redmond Road, according to Williston Police.
The two men, Raymond Micklon and David Przepioski, both of Craftsbury Common, “were located sitting on top of a pipe that was suspended in the air by a crane, while a group of other protestors watched,” according to a police press release. “The two men were sitting back to back and were attached to one another at the neck with three bicycle locks.”
All protesters left the scene peacefully except for Micklon and Przepioski, who were taken into custody after the Williston Fire Department assisted in getting them down safely. The two men were later released and are due in court Oct. 2 to answer a charge of unlawful trespass, police said.
Activists say they are opposed to the use of gas extracted from the earth using hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
The Public Service Board approved the 41-mile natural gas pipeline in December. Planning is ongoing for a Phase II of the project, an extension of the pipeline to Ticonderoga, N.Y.
The project would bring natural gas from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes through an underground high-pressure pipeline that will pass through Essex, Williston, St. George and Hinesburg. The pipeline roughly follows the route of the defunct Circumferential Highway.