MIDDLEBURY — As state officials continue to review Vermont Gas System’s proposed “Phase II” pipeline segment from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y., Middlebury town officials are asking local residents to voice their concerns in anticipation of weighing on whether to support the $70 million project.
The Middlebury selectboard hosted a public meeting Tuesday at the town’s municipal gym on the Phase II project, in order to give affected local landowners an overview of the project and knowledge of their rights during a process that will see contractors coming onto their property and perhaps eventually digging trenches in which to place the pipeline. That conduit would extend from Middlebury, through Cornwall and Shoreham, under Lake Champlain, to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
Middlebury officials want to hear townspeople’s concerns in order to convey an official “Phase II” position and concerns to the Vermont Public Service Board by May 30. The PSB is currently evaluating the Vermont Gas application and will determine whether to award it the certificate of public good it needs to proceed. The PSB will be convening a public hearing at Shoreham Elementary School on Wednesday, May 7, to discuss Phase II (see related story on Page 1A).
The PSB has already green-lighted “Phase I” of the so-called Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project, a 41-mile pipeline extension from Colchester to Middlebury. The town now wants to protect its interests with respect to Phase II. The town’s initial concerns, as raised by the local planning commission, include making sure that:
• Placement of the pipeline will allow for a future roundabout intersection at Exchange Street and Route 7.
• All related pipeline infrastructure (such as receiving stations) are secure, feature noise mitigation devices and are landscaped and screened.
• The pipeline’s proposed crossing of the Otter Creek be regularly monitored and maintained.
• Local emergency responders receive training and related equipment to prepare for any potential pipeline-related emergencies.
• Steps be taken to mitigate the impacts of pipeline construction on area businesses, residences and local traffic.
• The impacts on prospective Middlebury ratepayers be explained and that comprehensive mapping of the underground natural gas pipeline utilities be provided.
Eileen Simollardes, vice president of regional affairs for Vermont Gas, represented the company at Tuesday’s meeting.
She said Phase II sprang from an inquiry from International Paper, which has been looking for a cheaper alternative to No. 6 fuel oil to power its boilers. In 2006 the company conducted, to Vermont officials’ chagrin, a test burn of waste tires as a potential alternative fuel source. Natural gas, Simollardes said, is currently roughly half the cost of fuel oil, and burns cleaner.
“International Paper asked, ‘Did you consider serving IP?’” Simollardes said, adding “we found out it was possible.”
Simollardes said IP would fund the Phase II project, which in turn would generate revenues that would allow Vermont Gas to extend the pipeline south into Rutland by 2020 — which is 15 years sooner than the company had thought to be financially feasible. As previously reported by the Addison Independent, Vermont Gas has already begin talking to Salisbury and Shoreham officials about a Phase III pipeline extension to Rutland.
The Phase II pipeline, she said, would consist of a 3-mile, 16-inch transmission pipe looping in Georgia; 4.5 miles of 12-inch pipe running south in Middlebury; 19.4 miles of 10-inch transmission line from Middlebury to Ticonderoga; a gate station and line under Lake Champlain to IP; and gate stations each in Cornwall and Shoreham.
Vermont Gas filed its Phase II application with the PSB last November. Simollardes laid out a schedule calling for the company to file for related New York State permits this spring. If all permits are approved, she said the company hopes to begin project construction during the spring of 2015 and begin service to IP by December of that year. Limited natural gas service to pockets of Cornwall and Shoreham residents is targeted for 2017, according to Simollardes.
IP officials are touting the natural gas project as a money saver for homeowners and also as a catalyst for economic development — particularly in Rutland County.
“I can’t think of anything else under way anywhere else in the state of Vermont that has the potential for the economic benefits that this project has,” Simollardes said.
But that opinion is not shared among some property owners, many of them in Addison County, who have opposed the project. They have argued the plan infringes on property rights and could pose safety and environmental concerns. Various statewide environmental groups have criticized the project for its intent to import natural gas that has been extracted from the earth using hydraulic fracturing.
Affected property owners along the Phase I route have raised concerns about the manner in which Vermont Gas has sought to acquire pipeline easements (see story, Page 1A). One of those property owners, Maren Vasatka of Monkton, was a panelist at Tuesday’s meeting. She urged Middlebury property owners to carefully read any agreements they are offered by the company, and to get legal representation if possible to help navigate a process that she said has a lot of fine print.
“I have been negotiating with Vermont Gas for over a year,” Vasatka told the assembled Middlebury residents who could find themselves in the same position. “There are a lot of things in these agreements you have to be cautious of.”
She explained she has learned the easement agreement will last forever, and that the agents who approach property owners are working for International Paper, not for the common interests of the buyer and sellers.
“(Your home) is the largest asset you have,” she said, adding that the 50-foot easements Vermont Gas is looking for affect the overall value and marketability of the property. Vermont Gas officials disputed that statement.
“Don’t sign anything until you have it looked over,” Vasatka urged.
Simollardes said property owners who sign easement agreements get 10 percent of the agreed-upon price up front, and the remaining 90 percent on closing — provided the project is permitted.
The company generally offers 100 percent of the appraised value of the easement land in question, according to Simollardes.
Middlebury resident Chris Zeoli voiced concerns about impacts on property owners, including the financial toll of potentially having to hire a lawyer during easement negotiations. He argued Vermont Gas, as the buyer, should provide a fund to cover legal expenses. As it stands, he said Vermont Gas is seeking to obtain rights to people’s property “and we have to pay for our own protection. That’s not right.”
The Vermont Department of Public Service is charged with representing Vermonters’ interests. Louise Porter, attorney for the DPS, listened to Tuesday’s proceedings and took notes she said would help inform the department’s position during the application process.
The easements, she added, apply to one operating pipeline. That means the company would have to negotiate a new easement agreement (or amend the initial one) if it ever sought to put a second functioning pipe within the same easement.
Vermont Gas would be expected to communicate with Dig Safe prior to installing its pipeline infrastructure, to ensure the project does not run afoul of any existing underground municipal utilities. Vermont Gas will also have to have an agreement with Middlebury in order to install distribution pipeline in its public right-of-ways, according to Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner. Pipeline infrastructure will be subject to local property taxes, subject to annual depreciation over 70 years.
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concerns about how safe the pipeline might be, as the conduit will in places run very close to homes and of course feature connections to customers.
Simollardes claimed natural gas transported through pipelines is safer than having it transported over land. She said the company has a good track record through years of having a safe system that she said is closely monitored and has a round-the-clock phone service to report potential problems.
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad raised concerns about natural gas producing an increase in radon levels. Radon is a radioactive, colorless, tasteless gas that presents health concerns.
Middlebury resident David Shaw raised the issue of whether affected property owners will get notice before contractors begin staking out easements or begin construction work.
“That is the intent,” Simollardes said, about giving notice. She said the walk-throughs tend to happen on a work day when homeowners are generally not there, and that the workers “tend to stay within the easements.”
She described a construction process that involves digging a trench that is five- to six-feet deep, laying the pipeline, welding it together and then inspecting it to make sure it is air-tight.
“The soil is put back in the order in which it was removed, it is regarded and restored with mulch and hay seed,” she added.
If the project is approved, she said the workers will install around 1,000 feet of pipeline per day. That property can be farmed and used, but no trees will be permitted to grow on it to prevent roots from tangling with the pipeline.
Middlebury Selectwoman Susan Shashok urged Middlebury residents to provide more feedback, either at upcoming board meetings or to Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.