MONKTON — Cars filled the parking lot of the Monkton Firehouse and lined the shoulder of States Prison Hollow Road for some distance in either direction last Thursday evening. Inside, the building was filled to capacity with citizens ready to give senior management from Vermont Gas Systems a piece of their mind about the South Burlington company’s proposed route for a natural gas pipeline.
“Town leaders should have a referendum on whether (the pipeline) should be here at all,” said Monkton resident Kevin Corrigan, to loud applause from the audience. “Let’s take four or five steps back.”
VGS late last month filed an application with the Vermont Public Service Board to extend into Addison County a pipeline that currently moves natural gas from Canada into Chittenden County. The proposed extension would travel down Pond Street and Monkton Road in Monkton and deliver the relatively less expensive fuel to Middlebury and Vergennes.
VGS officials say the pipeline was originally thought up to bring gas to Middlebury and Rutland. At this stage, though, 71 percent of the pipeline’s fuel would go to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Monkton is not currently slated to get any fuel from the pipeline.
At a Dec. 10 meeting, hundreds of Monkton residents and the selectboard affirmed their opposition to the proposed route and requested that VGS delay its scheduled Dec. 20 filing with the PSB for a Certificate of Public Good. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission also signaled its opposition to VGS’s proposed Monkton route, though it reiterated support for the pipeline project as a whole, “with conditions.” Many at the time urged VGS to revert to a previous plan of running the proposed pipeline down the existing VELCO utilities corridor, which stretches through Monkton from Rutland to South Burlington and has buffers in case of accidents or pipeline ruptures.
Despite local concerns, on Dec. 20 VGS went ahead and filed its proposal with the PSB without amending its proposed route through Monkton. In its application, the company requested a prehearing conference for Jan. 7, three days before its senior staff was due in Monkton to hear the public’s concerns. That request was denied; the prehearing conference will take place on Jan. 30.
VGS senior management pledged to meet with the Agency of Natural Resources to discuss permitting along the VELCO corridor, which includes a swath of the Monkton Swamp.
MONKTON SPEAKS OUT
Monkton residents handed VGS officials around 60 notice against trespass orders from landowners along the currently proposed corridor, signaling the landowners’ skepticism that VGS could complete pipeline construction without coming onto personal property.
“Permitting, constructability and cost are not acceptable excuses for proposing a natural gas transmission line near homes and wells,” said resident Renee McGuinness, who presented the trespass notices to VGS officials.
Over the course of an open floor discussion, several townspeople gave accounts of surveyors working for VGS who had been explicitly told not to work on their property coming onto it anyway. Others said they had been given little indication that they had a say in what construction occurred on their property, with two stating they or a neighbor had been threatened with eminent domain.
“You had surveyors on my property for days without permission,” one resident told VGS President and CEO Donald Gilbert. “How does that happen?”
Some residents expressed specific concerns about the damage that would be done to their front lawns and personal property. The pipeline’s construction, they said, would require fences to be removed and, in one case, an existing foundation to be torn down.
“You’re going to decimate properties,” Corrigan told VGS officials.
Roger Wallace made the point that though Monkton itself would not be served by the pipeline’s gas, local propane companies would “lose the 3,000 easiest customers they’ve got” to cheaper natural gas that would be distributed in nearby areas like Bristol.
“For the rest of us, that means our price of fuel goes up,” Wallace said.
The audience also heard from Frank White, a resident of Willsboro, N.Y., who wanted Monkton residents to know that they weren’t alone in opposing the pipeline.
“Lake Champlain just got cleaned up,” White said, citing concerns about pipeline accidents that could foul the lake. “That’s our commons, our lake.”
An activist representing the Burlington-based group Put People First and Rising Tide Vermont offered to connect Monkton residents to a group in Middlebury that had expressed similar concerns about VGS’ pipeline.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, also addressed those gathered at the meeting.
“You have support in the Legislature,” he said.
Sharpe said he hoped the pipeline dispute could be solved without legislative assistance now that VGS had demonstrated a willingness to change the route. But he added that if it was not resolved, Monkton could expect legislative support from himself as well as from Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, and state Sens. Claire Ayers and Christopher Bray.
The bulk of concerns brought up at the meeting involved safety, including whether the pipeline’s location under the road would affect its durability over time, and the proximity of the proposed corridor to wells, homes and the elementary school. VGS representatives wereable to answer in detail questions about the size, flexibility, and durability of the 12-inch pipeline, a sample of which sat on a table in front of the audience. However, they were also confronted with less technical questions.
“Are you human?” one Monkton resident asked.
MEA CULPA IN MONKTON
“We want to work with you to find an alternative that works,” VGS leader Gilbert told the scores of people at last Thursday’s meeting.
VGS representatives also apologized for what they called poor communication on the part of the company, and stated that they would convey future updates by notifying the town through official correspondence and individual landowners by mail.
But Monkton residents were looking for more than words.
“Now the ball is in their court to take the town’s concerns and turn it into action,” Jennifer Baker, a Monkton Road resident who has led the charge organizing against the pipeline, told the Independent.
Baker said that VGS would have to win over property owners along the VELCO corridor as well: “The only way (residents) are going to be satisfied is with meaningful setbacks from their homes.”
But some residents indicated that VGS was offering too little, too late.
“After last night’s meeting, I think there is a movement to get it out of Monkton altogether,” said McGuinness on Friday. McGuinness’s property on Rotax Road would abut the proposed pipeline whether it was along Monkton Road or moved back to the VELCO corridor. “We were not pacified by VGS’ apology … they have not acted in good faith.”