MIDDLEBURY — More than 500 people from throughout the state packed the Middlebury Union Middle School gym on Tuesday to weigh in on a proposed 43-mile natural gas pipeline, with most of the commenters urging the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to deny Vermont Gas Systems the permit it needs to pursue the $70 million project.
Like many citizens who spoke, New Haven resident Craig Zondag addressed environmental issues, including the fact that some of the gas in the pipeline would have been captured using a controversial drilling technique called fracking.
“If we, as a species, move to fracking practices anywhere on the planet… we are clearly selling each other out,” Zondag told the PSB, which will evaluate the many comments as part of the public record as it determines whether to award the Addison Natural Gas Project a certificate of public good.
“What we do to nature, we do to ourselves,” Zondag added.
Zondag was one of scores of people who signed up to speak in a steamy gym during a three-hour event that delivered copious amounts of knowledge, drama, tears, noise and theatrics.
The drama began early, when PSB members chastised some project opponents who had identified themselves on the speaking list as supporters. The board had hoped to receive alternating testimony from opponents and supporters, rather than garnering solid blocks of pro or con comments. The PSB quickly abandoned that strategy after strings of consecutive opponents took to the podium.
Theatrics were supplied from some commenters who delivered their messages under such pseudonyms as “Peter Pan” and “Tinkerbell,” and as pirates and Tick Tock Croc. Some did this to metaphorically convey their opinion that the pipeline would not provide a bridge to Vermont’s conversion to renewable energy sources (as some proponents have argued), but would instead serve as a “gangplank” to an environmental catastrophe.
Noise was provided by many in the crowd who cheered opponents’ comments while jeering pipeline supporters who took to the podium. Organizations such as Rising Tide Vermont and the Toxics Action Center rallied opponents to MUMS, supplying them with signs reading, “stop the fracked gas pipeline,” which were waved after anti-pipeline statements were delivered. A pop-up booth outside the MUMS door offered custom-made T-shirts bearing anti-pipeline slogans.
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Opponents attacked the project on several fronts, arguing that it runs counter to Vermont’s recently passed, in-state ban on hydraulic fracturing (the natural gas would come from Alberta, Canada); that it is counter-intuitive to Vermont’s stated mission of deriving 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2050; that it is unlikely to provide sizable, long-term cost savings compared to fuel oil and renewables; and that it would primarily benefit large corporate interests at the expense of landowners whose property would be bisected by the pipeline.
“I believe this proposed fracked pipeline would increase Vermont’s reliance on fossil fuels,” said Shoreham resident Sharon Tierra, a member of the group Vermont Citizens for Public Good. “We should be investing in making renewable energy more affordable. (Natural gas) is a gangplank to a future we don’t want.”
George Gross, also of Shoreham and a member of Citizens for Public Good, agreed.
“Besides contributing to climate change, this project would take land from its owners for corporate profits while at the same time increase our dependency on fracked gas, which is destroying our water supplies and croplands,” he said. “This horrible devastation will not stop until we stop our addiction on fossil fuels.”
Cornwall resident Andrew Marks claimed the natural gas pipeline would place nearby residents’ homes, farms and properties in jeopardy, as well as undermine the integrity of the state’s working landscape. He said he believes the pipeline “would prove unproductive for the state of Vermont and its people.”
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad said the world has for a long time been “digging itself a hole” in the area of greenhouse gas emissions. He noted the first step in solving the problem should be to “stop digging,” but said “Vermont Gas is handing us another shovel.”
Conrad also voiced concerns about natural gas that can escape the pipeline and contribute to global warming.
Alice Eckles, also from Middlebury, noted organic farming will not be able to occur over the buried pipeline. She recommended that those who want natural gas instead have it trucked in from companies that provide that service.
“I think it would be a great compromise,” she said.
Monkton resident Todd Weaver claimed Vermont Gas has not been offering landowners fair compensation for the easements they must secure for the pipeline.
“It cuts my land in half,” he said of the proposed pipeline route.
Renee McGuiness, also from Monkton, disputed the economic value of the pipeline to Addison County. She pointed to claims that the pipeline would generate an additional 400 jobs for Addison County. She calculated that, given the price tag of the project, the cost of each new job would be more than $200,000.
“There is no evidence (the pipeline) will provide economic stability and growth in Addison County,” McGuiness said.
Commenter Julie Mitchell agreed. She said Vermont’s unemployment rate is currently the fifth lowest in the nation, in spite of having natural gas available in only two counties (Franklin and Chittenden). Conversely, she said states with greater access to natural gas — such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Texas — have higher jobless rates.
Shoreham resident Marlene Latourelle said she and her husband moved to Addison County more than 20 years ago in part to enjoy a more rural lifestyle.
“If you told me at the time I would be fighting a natural gas pipeline, I would have laughed at you,” she said. “I hope the joke is not on us.”
SUPPORT FOR PIPELINE
But supporters of the project touted its potential to deliver considerable savings to homeowners and businesses on heating bills. Area business leaders said this would free up cash for new hires and make Addison County a more advantageous place in which to lay down roots and create good paying jobs.
Donna Donahue, a former Better Middlebury Partnership president, counted herself among those who believe the pipeline would give an entrepreneurial boost to Addison County.
“I believe that if we are going to compete for business in this area and throughout the state, we have to be competitive with other places,” Donahue said. “Whether it’s a 25-percent reduction or 40-percent reduction in fuel costs, that’s very significant to any business owner. That business owner hires my neighbors, hires our children, and is part of our future. I would love to see (a point when) we didn’t need gas or oil, but that’s not the point that we’re at. We are definitely decades away from that kind of energy. In the meantime, I think we have a commitment to a sustainable Middlebury and a sustainable state. I believe the gas pipeline does that.”
Donahue said there are almost 500,000 miles of interstate pipeline crossing the country, carrying petroleum, crude products and natural gas.
“It has been found to be the safest means of transportation,” said Donahue, who said she resented “fear mongering and intimidation” tactics being used by some pipeline critics.
“I think we are better than that,” she said.
Bill Flood of UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes said the company — which employs 800 people — supports the natural gas project as a tool to remain competitive.
“Our business competes globally,” Flood said. “Natural gas would provide both cost-effective and environmental solutions for the community.”
Bristol resident Bill Sayre said the pipeline has already proven itself in Chittenden and Franklin counties.
“If the pipeline is so bad for the environment, you wouldn’t see so many miles of it in rural Vermont,” he said.
Middlebury resident Robert Foster of Foster Brothers Farm was one of more than 750 people who thus far have submitted written comments to the PSB. He provided a copy of those comments to the Addison Independent Tuesday evening.
“Our 5th generation farm is impacted by the gas line both physically and economically,” Foster said.
“Natural gas would provide this community with an alternative fuel, which is cleaner than the existing fuels in use and substantially lower cost,” he added. “Many jobs are directly affected by energy costs right now, today. Reducing the cost of energy increases the viability and sustainability of many businesses in this community.”
The crowd was sprinkled with several people wearing green Agri-Mark/Cabot shirts, representing the Middlebury cheese factory that has stated it would save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually if the pipeline is approved. Middlebury College, Porter Hospital and several businesses within Middlebury’s industrial park have also forecast big savings on their annual energy bills.
Joseph Fusco of Casella Waste Management said he supports the pipeline project because it would bring natural gas service closer to the business’s headquarters in Rutland. Vermont Gas officials have mapped out a long-range plan to eventually extend the pipeline to Rutland County. Fusco said Casella has been converting its vehicles to run on compressed natural gas, a fuel that he said burns cleaner.
“To us, that is a significant environmental impact,” he said. “We would like to see those environmental impacts … brought down to this part of the state.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]