State officials say they will seek penalties from Vermont Gas Systems for the company's destruction last month of 77 endangered flowers near Monkton during work to install a pipeline.
The Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Service have also jointly asked the Public Service Board to investigate the incident and take further legal action if appropriate.
The company's contractors destroyed 77 of what are called harsh sunflowers while cutting other vegetation July 18. Contractors had considered moving the plants but tried instead to drill horizontally beneath them for the pipeline. The flowers died during preparations for the drilling.
That violated the state's threatened and endangered species law, according to Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter.
It's a civil matter, Porter said. The law allows his department to seek up to $42,500 per incident and a total of $170,000 per event, but Porter said the department likely won't press for damages.
Instead, the state likely will do as it has in other cases and seek a settlement that would aid in recovering the harmed species, such as by protecting habitat.
Vermont Gas avoided many aggravating factors that would lead to particularly harsh penalties, Porter said. For instance, company representatives immediately told regulators of the incident. It also appears to have been an unintentional violation, and Vermont Gas appears not to have profited off the plants' destruction, Porter said.
However, he said the law clearly directs action on his part in light of the flowers' destruction.
"They matter because we have the responsibility and the obligation to protect threatened and endangered species, and to make sure they remain in existence in the state," he said. "It's one of the most important charges of the department."
Vermont Gas intends to cooperate fully, company spokeswoman Beth Parent said.
"We take this very seriously," Parent said, adding that the company also alerted its own environmental expert immediately after the incident and has now written a harsh sunflower mitigation plan that includes training and oversight measures.
The ANR and the Department of Public Service asked that Vermont Gas also face penalties for an apparent violation of the permit for the pipeline, which is called the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project.
The Public Service Board issued a certificate of public good — the permit authorizing the pipeline — with the condition that Vermont Gas obtain all necessary permits before beginning work. Because the company had no permit to take endangered species, it violated its certificate, lawyers for the Agency of Natural Resources argued to the board.
The agency filed its request earlier this month that the board investigate the incident and pursue enforcement.