Protesters shut down eminent domain hearing in Monkton

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MONKTON >> Protesters shut down an eminent domain hearing Wednesday in Monkton's Volunteer Fire Department Hall.

The demonstration delayed what was to be the first of three hearings to be held by the Public Service Board as part of eminent domain proceedings for three private properties.

Vermont Gas has permission from 98 percent of landowners to build a pipeline through Addison County. The company, a subsidiary of Montreal-based Gaz Metro, has constructed a section in Chittenden County and plans to lay another 30 miles of pipeline from Williston to Middlebury.

The protest follows calls by litigants and more than 200 Vermont individuals to limit the construction to the 11-mile Chittenden County loop.

The board is moving ahead with property condemnation hearings at the same time it is re-evaluating whether the 41-mile pipeline project, which has doubled in cost, benefits ratepayers. Vermont Gas must have a certificate of public good to continue the project. The board is reassessing the certificate, which was originally issued in Dec. 2013, because the estimated cost of the project has gone from $86.6 million to $154 million and Vermont Gas is relying on the 54,000 ratepayers in Franklin, Addison and Chittenden counties to pick up $134 million of the tab. The board is expected to rule before Jan. 8.

Monkton resident Jane Palmer, one of the litigants in the Public Service Board case, said Wednesday that Vermont Gas shouldn't condemn property for a pipeline that the Public Service Board hasn't yet decided whether to allow.

Doing so needlessly disrupts the lives of affected property owners, Palmer told hearing officer John Cotter moments before about 30 in attendance at the hearing broke into song with a fiddle accompaniement.

"I sat down, and a little while later a couple people got up and started singing, and we kept singing louder and louder, and they couldn't hold the hearing," Palmer said.

Following the foreshortened hearing, Vermont Gas Systems representatives attempted to bring state officials on a site inspection at the affected property, but were stymied by dozens of people displaying banners against the pipeline and blocking the private road that offered the property's only ingress.

Some of the protesters attended the hearing with the intention of shutting it down, said Anna Rose, a volunteer with anti-climate change advocacy group Rising Tide.

"A group of people came prepared to say, 'We draw the line here,' and other people joined them," Rose said.

No arrests were made, although both plainclothes and uniformed police turned out en masse for the occasion.

"Monkton has never seen such police action," Palmer said. "It was like a drug raid."

"The question is," Palmer said, "why are they putting people through this, if the pipeline could just go away next month? This is wrong. Until you know you're going to build the pipeline, you should not be tearing these people's lives up."

One of three landowners against whom Vermont Gas Systems has initiated eminent domain hearings said she's afraid the natural gas conduit might explode.

Such incidents are not unheard of.

An average of 34 serious pipeline incidents occurred each year in the United States since 2005, with an annual average of 14 fatalities and 59 injuries, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"I'm really scared to death of it," said Claire Broughton, whose eminent domain hearing was to be held Wednesday but was rescheduled into early January. "It's just not very good for me to have it through here. I don't want to live anywhere near it."

Broughton's lawyer has asked that the Public Service Board dismiss Vermont Gas System's certificate of public good for the project, saying that conditions justifying the original certificate no longer hold true.

Circumstances have changed since the pipeline won its original approval, Jim Dumont, the attorney for the AARP, wrote in a brief submitted just before Christmas to the Public Service Board. The changed circumstances include: the current availability of compressed natural gas in the areas that the pipeline would serve, and the improved technology of cold-climate heat pumps.

Those factors alone obviate the need for the pipeline, Dumont says. NG Advantage supplies compressed natural gas to Agri-Mark, Middlebury College and businesses in the area.

Vermont Gas has argued that the pipeline would improve Vermont's economy by lowering fuel costs for home heating. But cold-climate heat pumps could be a more economical replacement option for oil furnaces than gas powered heating systems, Dumont says.

Dumont's brief asks the Public Service Board to halt construction of the pipeline with the 11 miles already built.

Vermont Gas Systems spokeswoman Beth Parent declined to say whether that would be economically feasible for the company, but said the matter might be considered more closely once the board issues an order.

The pipeline "is about bringing clean, affordable energy" to 4,000 homes and businesses that are counting on the pipeline's installation, Parent said.

"Obviously natural gas is cleaner than propane and heating oil, and it will significantly reduce the carbon emissions by those folks that switch over," she said.

The pipeline would offer cheap power to homes and the biggest beneficiaries would be the elderly and others living on fixed incomes, Parent said.

Asked why, if that's the case, the AARP is among the litigants against the pipeline, Parent said "I actually don't know why they're fighting it. Vermonters on fixed incomes, especially elderly folks, they have the most to gain."

But a volunteer with a Vermont group called Just Power says Addison County businesses stand to gain the most from the pipeline.

Business entities are the main driver of the economic good that led state officials to back the project, said Rebecca Foster of Just Power, a group that recently collected more than 200 signatures from prominent Vermonters who want to see the project halted.

"The main beneficiaries of this pipeline are the potential commercial customers in Addison County, such as Cabot," Foster said. "Analysis has been done, and by far the greatest benefit is going to the commercial users and not the residents."

Those businesses can now purchase compressed natural gas, an option that didn't exist when the pipeline's original CPG was issued, she said.

"It's a little more expensive than getting it from a pipeline," she said, "but my goodness, why shouldn't the business pay for it? Why should the ratepayers provide Cabot with their gas? Why can't Cabot get it themselves?"

Between 2,600 and 4,000 customers are expected to use the pipeline. Cabot is only one of many businesses that the pipeline is anticipated to serve.

Parent's estimate of 4,000 customers is higher than the number Vermont Gas estimated in their official filings, but either way, spread among that few customers, the rates that must be levied to cover $134 million of the project's cost don't justify the project's drawbacks, Foster said.

In fact, she said, no study has been conducted to determine how many people would actually use the piece of the pipeline currently under consideration. The actual number of potential customers could be far fewer, she said.

Instead of switching heating systems to burn natural gas, which can cost as much as $9,000, Foster said consumers would be better served with a cold-climate heat pump running on power from a solar panel.

Foster says it's misleading for Vermont Gas to say that natural gas burns cleaner than propane or heating oil.

While natural gas does produce fewer objectionable emissions during the act of combustion than other fuel sources, natural gas production is an extremely messy process that releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, she said. Methane is believed to contribute around 27 times the greenhouse effect that carbon does.

As a result, Foster said, "if you look at the full life cycle some studies have found that natural gas is worse than coal."

These and other reasons led more than 200 business owners, faith leaders and energy committee members to sign a petition Just Power recently submitted as public comment to the Public Service Board in opposition to the pipeline.

Ben and Jerry's is among the signatories, a fact that further demonstrates "that it is a reasonable position to hold," she said.

Parent said Vermont Gas Systems hopes for a ruling in its favor prior to Jan. 8.

Vermont Gas Systems representatives have said that construction deadlines will not be met if the board does not make a decision by that time, and further delays would make construction costs prohibitive. The Public Service Board has been deliberating on the certificate of public good matter for more than a year.

Mike Polhamus writes about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He can be contacted at mpolhamus@vtdigger.org. Follow Mike on Twitter @mike_vtd.


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