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Cornwall pushes back on proposed natural gas pipeline; more than 100 at meeting

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Posted on June 24, 2013 |
By John Flowers



CORNWALL — More than 100 Cornwall residents packed their school cafeteria on Wednesday, June 19, to send a collective message to Vermont Gas Systems: We don’t want your proposed pipeline and we are prepared to go to the courts and/or engage in civil disobedience to stop it.

“I will fight you tooth and nail,” vowed resident Mary Martin, who, with her husband Randy, owns one of the properties through which a natural gas transmission line would travel on its way from Middlebury to the International Paper (IP) mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.

“I don’t want this for any of us, on any level,” she added.

The Martins on Wednesday presented the Cornwall selectboard with a petition bearing the names of three of the estimated eight Cornwall property owners whose lands would be directly affected by Vermont Gas’s preferred pipeline route. That petition states the landowners’ opposition to the company’s $70 million plan, calling for 24 miles of buried transmission conduit through portions of Middlebury, Cornwall and Shoreham. The line would then be directed at least 30 feet under the Lake Champlain floor into the IP mill.

In phase one of its Addison Natural Gas Project, Vermont Gas officials are already seeking a state OK to extend a pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. That application is currently before the Vermont Public Service Board. The company hopes to begin providing Middlebury’s industrial park with natural gas by late next year, followed by residences in 2015. The phase two pipeline segment was designed with one corporate customer in mind: IP. It was in March 2012, that IP asked Vermont Gas if it could extend the additional pipeline segment to its mill, which currently burns No. 6 fuel oil. Since the price of natural gas is currently around 45 percent less than that of fuel oil, IP stands to save a lot of money through the conversion.

How much? IP officials aren’t saying for sure, but Cornwall selectboard Chairman Bruce Hiland estimated the paper company’s annual savings “conservatively” at $20 million per year.

“You will quickly calculate that’s not a bad payback on a $70-million investment,” Hiland said during his opening remarks at Wednesday’s gathering. Hiland also estimated the pipeline would increase Vermont Gas’s revenue by 30 percent annually.

Several Cornwall residents who spoke out at the gathering seized on that notion, that the pipeline would enrich two multi-national entities (Vermont Gas is owned by the Canadian company Gaz Métro). Vermont Gas will try to negotiate pipeline right-of-way easements with affected property owners. As a utility, it would have the option of exercising eminent domain if the project receives state approval and if it cannot come to terms with some property owners. The company has, in recent weeks, “sweetened” its offer to Cornwall by offering natural gas tap-ons to 60-70 homes in the village area. Company officials have also noted the town stands to receive $240,000 in property tax revenue from the pipeline infrastructure if it is installed — a figure that would decrease annually through depreciation.

That level of compensation didn’t sit well with many residents, who are concerned the pipeline would affect their safety and property rights. Others are opposed to the notion of their town being bisected by a conduit carrying natural gas that has been extracted by hydraulic fracturing, a process through which fissures in subterranean rocks are opened by introducing liquid of undisclosed types at a high pressure.

“Offering our town a small amount of taxes that would decrease each year and natural gas distribution for a small fraction of homeowners is an embarrassingly low offer to make our town in exchange for hosting this pipeline,” resident Sarah Murray said. “I suggest you put your thinking caps on, because you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.”

Resident Stan Grzyb agreed that the financial benefits to Cornwall would be relatively minor if the project goes through.

“It’s a Canadian-owned gas company that is proposing a route through Cornwall to serve an International Paper Company that has very little vested interest in the residents of Cornwall,” Grzyb said.

Brian Kemp is one of the Cornwall residents who would be in line for a natural gas tap-on. While he acknowledged such a conversion could give him substantial savings on his heating bill, it’s not enough to change his mind on the pipeline.

“I’m still opposed to it,” he said. “And I’m also opposed to seeing it go through Whiting or Leicester.”

There were no IP officials present at Wednesday’s gathering, which included Vermont Gas CEO Don Gilbert and Vermont Department of Public Service Commission representative Chris Recchia. That department will be representing Vermonters’ interests in the Public Service Board’s review of the Vermont Gas application.

IP SAVES USING GAS

The Addison Independent asked International Paper spokeswoman Donna Wadsworth if the company indeed stands to save $20 million annually by converting to natural gas. In an e-mailed response, she neither confirmed nor denied the number, but said that in 2012, the mill’s outlay for No. 6 fuel oil represented 17 percent of its operating budget

“We expect conversion from No. 6 fuel oil to natural gas will provide significant savings,” Wadsworth said. “The Ticonderoga mill’s energy cost per ton of paper produced is the highest in our company worldwide. It is absolutely critical to the future of the mill that we find ways to reduce our energy costs in order to be competitive in the markets we serve. Over the past eight years, we have invested more than $27 million on energy efficiency projects and in doing so have been able to lower our total fuel oil consumption by approximately 36 percent. However, the increased cost and volatility of pricing of oil continue to put us at a competitive disadvantage.”

International Paper is not poised to plow any of its fuel savings into further development of its Ticonderoga mill, according to Wadsworth.

“The Ticonderoga mill has no plans for future expansion,” she said. “On the contrary, with North American consumption of paper declining year-over-year, it has become increasingly apparent that only those mills which are the most competitive and have the greatest customer satisfaction will survive.”

She said IP spent more on fuel oil last year than it did on wood and fiber, or wages and benefits.

Wadsworth added she and other IP officials have attended past public meetings on phase one pipeline proposal, as well as some semi-regular gatherings of an ad hoc multi-town working group put together by IP to study the phase two project.

“We expect to be involved in public meetings and discussions around phase two,” Wadsworth said.

But Cornwall residents on Wednesday said they should not be asked to bear the pipeline load for IP’s sake, a company that, they noted, in 2006 attempted to used shredded, recycled tires as a fuel source and has in the past been fined for waste spills into Lake Champlain.

“IP has been a terrible neighbor,” said Swamp Road resident Peter Oxford. Odors emanating from the plant, he said, prevent him from going outside around one day per month.

“There’s no love lost between me and IP.”

Some residents emphasized safety concerns about the pipeline. They noted this would be a 10-inch transmission line, carrying more gas than the smaller distribution lines that usually go into neighborhoods. They said they were worried about the potential escape of gas and what might happen in the event of an explosion.

“I think the most important thing in many of our lives are our children,” resident Andrew Marks said. “We have two. And I think the most important job a parent has is to keep his children safe from harm and prepare them for the future. Vermont Gas is planning to install a fracked gas pipeline into our town, and at a distance from our particular home which, if a leak were to occur, could entirely destroy our home and kill our family. I see absolutely no reason why any parent would agree to take such an uninvited risk with their children’s lives. An aging pipeline is not the legacy we wish to leave for our children.”

VERMONT GAS RESPONDS

Gilbert and Eileen Simollardes, the company’s vice president for supply and regulatory affairs, listened to the public feedback and responded to several questions.

Gilbert acknowledged that Vermont Gas’s initial outreach efforts to Cornwall were lacking, but added he was surprised at the level of opposition coming from the town. He said the company has been well received in other communities.

Vermont Gas officials also reiterated what they said were more regional benefits of the project. The pipeline, Gilbert said, would allow the South Burlington-based company to extend natural gas service to Rutland in 15 years, instead of more than 25 years from now. That’s because some of the IP revenues for the phase two pipeline could be applied to extending service more rapidly to southern Vermont. And Vermont Gas eventually wants to be able to patch its pipeline into the U.S. natural gas network in New York state.

Simollardes expressed confidence that natural gas burns “cleaner” than fuel oil, and she also weighed in on the issue of fracked gas.

“I do believe that fracked gas is a positive, overall, for our environment and our economy,” Simollardes said. “It has to be done responsibly. It has to be done adhering to all the regulations.”

Gilbert agreed.

“There have been hundreds of thousands of wells drilled utilizing (fracking) and producing natural gas in an environmentally sensitive manner,” he said. “We know it can be done in an environmentally sensitive manner.”

Cornwall officials closed Wednesday’s meeting after two hours of comments. They encouraged residents to drop additional comments off at the town offices.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Hiland said of future dealings with the Vermont Gas plan.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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