SHOREHAM — While Vermont Gas Systems Inc. is now actively seeking the necessary permits and easements it needs to extend its pipeline south into Vergennes and Middlebury by next year, the company is also starting to lay the groundwork for the second phase of its expansion plans: Service to International Paper Co. in Ticonderoga, N.Y., by 2015, a construction project that will affect several property owners in Cornwall and Shoreham.
Vermont Gas officials have already met with the Cornwall selectboard for some preliminary discussions about the 10.5-mile underground pipeline segment that would extend from Middlebury through Cornwall and Shoreham, then flow under Lake Champlain to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga.
And Vermont Gas has scheduled an informational meeting for Monday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Shoreham Firehouse to explain the company’s pipeline concept to Shoreham residents and hear any concerns they might have at this point. A similar meeting will soon be scheduled in Cornwall, according to Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark.
More public meetings will take place during the months ahead in a process Wark said will include discussions with the Cornwall and Shoreham planning commissions on pipeline route alternatives.
“We will refine and reduce those route alternatives until we have a singular route,” Wark said.
“Our goal is to work with the communities to see what works best.”
Vermont Gas has already had a lot of practice with public meetings as it pursues the first phase of its service expansion, dubbed the Addison Natural Gas Project. The company late last year applied for a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board to proceed with the 43-mile project that would be routed through 11 communities, in many places via the Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) corridor. Company officials have been tweaking their plans in reaction to community concerns, such as those expressed in Monkton about the proposed routing of the underground pipeline down a public right-of-way on Pond Street and Monkton Road.
Residents in affected towns have also voiced concerns about how the pipeline project could affect their property and safety, along with some trepidation about the volatility of natural gas and the manner by which it is sometimes extracted from the ground (through hydraulic fracturing). Residents along the route have also voiced frustrations about not being able to tap into the natural gas, a heating fuel source that Vermont Gas officials said is 43 percent less expensive than fuel oil and 51 percent less than propane. Plans do not call for tap-ons to the pipeline in all communities through which it passes.
Shoreham selectboard Chairman Paul Saenger said he has not heard many concerns at this point from fellow townspeople about the proposed $70 million natural gas pipeline that will serve — and will be paid for by — International Paper. Town officials have asked Vermont Gas to make natural gas service available as quickly as possible to Shoreham consumers, particularly those in the more populated village area.
“I have heard some concerns, but they don’t seem to be major concerns,” Saenger said.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, organized a recent gathering among Shoreham residents whose properties could be bisected by the pipeline. Multiple efforts to reach Stevens were unsuccessful as the Addison Independent went to press.
It was in late November that Vermont Gas officials briefed the Cornwall selectboard and planning commission members on the International Paper pipeline project. Company representatives at that point told local officials of their plans to apply for a certificate of public good in July in hopes of completing construction in 2015. The Cornwall Planning Commission has appointed resident Jim Duclos to represent the town in monitoring the project.
“The town has not taken a position on the pipeline,” Duclos said.
Duclos has spoken with a few Cornwall property owners who have been approached by a survey crew working on behalf of Vermont Gas. Those property owners, he said, are concerned about the potential impacts the project could have on their land. He noted there is no VELCO corridor in play in Cornwall.
Cornwall resident Jeffrey Noordsy said he was approached last November by Rob Naramore, representing himself as a “duly authorized representative of Vermont Gas.” He presented Noordsy with a map and letter indicating that the proposed natural gas pipeline was slated to cross his property, located at the intersection of Routes 30 and 74. Noordsy was asked to sign a “right of entry agreement” to allow crews to survey, evaluate and study his property.
Noordsy said the visit came as a complete surprise, as did that map, which he said showed the pipeline bumping right up to his house foundation. The map also showed the pipeline going along Routes 30 and 74 and Morse Road, as well as through the town common and under the steps of the nearby Congregational Church.
“We are concerned there is a route that has already been chosen and that it has not been disclosed publicly,” Noordsy said.
Wark said the worker in question was doing some preliminary field work in one of the six broad corridors that are under consideration for the pipeline route. He said the coming process will narrow those options to a preferred route. Wark added Vermont Gas would not locate its pipeline next to the foundation of a house.
“The map was a placeholder for a corridor, not an accurate representation of a proposed location,” Wark said.
As a utility, Vermont Gas has the ability to take easements under eminent domain if it can prove public good — such as arguing that providing the less costly option of natural gas to Addison County residences and businesses is in the public good.
But can Vermont Gas make a compelling argument that extending natural gas to one corporate consumer would be in the public good and pass the test for eminent domain?
Wark believes the answer is “yes,” on several accounts.
First, he said the pipeline infrastructure would be valued at between $1.8 million and $2 million per mile and subject to local property taxes.
“It could be a considerable benefit to both towns, in terms of tax revenues alone,” Wark said.
Second, he said giving International Paper access to a cheaper fuel source would make the company stronger, thereby increasing the viability of its 600 mill jobs and those of more than 650 independent loggers and truckers in New York and Vermont who directly earn a living by harvesting and delivering its wood supply.
Third, Wark said the new pipeline segment would bring Vermont Gas 17 miles closer to its ultimate goal of bringing natural gas to Rutland County.
“When we do our in-depth economic development analysis, people will see the benefits to the public at large,” Wark said.
Meanwhile, International Paper has already put engineers to work planning conversion of the mill’s No. 6 fuel oil firing equipment to natural gas firing equipment. That conversion will cost an estimated $8 million to $10 million, according to International Paper spokeswoman Donna Wadsworth. Using natural gas would “significantly” reduce the mill’s fuel costs, according to Wadsworth. She also projected that natural gas use would reduce the mill’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent.
It wasn’t long ago that the company was considering conversion to tire-derived fuel, which drew sharp criticism from Vermonters over the environmental consequences of such a move.
“We are excited about the project,” Wadsworth said. “2015 sounds like a long way away, but for us it is coming along fast.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]