Protect Geprags Park: Hinesburg pipeline opponents respond

Editor’s note: This commentary was submitted by Rachel Smolker on behalf of the citizen group Protect Geprags Park, based in Hinesburg. The group consists of about 15 members who are fighting the Vermont Gas pipeline passage through the park.

Hinesburg residents, on hearing the Public Service Board has granted a pipeline easement to Vermont Gas across Geprags Park remain unsurprised and undaunted. We anticipated that this would happen all along, and we have known we would have to appeal the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. The PSB and Vermont Gas have failed to consider the laws that govern public park land such as Geprags. In essence those laws hold that land devoted to a public use cannot be condemned for another public use without legislative authority. This is referred to as “well settled law” where it has been upheld by the Vermont Supreme Court on several occasions. Vermont statutes also require that any change in the use of public park lands can only be done with a full townwide vote at town meeting. Beyond the legal arguments is an ethical one. Geprags was given to Hinesburg with a covenant in the deed that requires the town to use it solely for recreation, education or a school. Failing to honor the covenant sets a terrible precedent.

It would have been naive to think that the PSB would rule in our favor. Throughout the history of this project the board has consistently given VGS whatever it wants in spite of the blatant failures and mismanagement that have characterized this project. They continue to insist that the pipeline is a “public good” even as we are watching them dig trenches through our beautiful landscapes, push people from their homes with eminent domain, play games with rates to conceal the real costs, outright lie about the climate benefits of natural gas as a “clean” fuel, and utterly fail to comply with even minimal safety standards in construction.

The PSB continues to rule in favor of this project in spite of the serious dangers that a mismanaged pipeline project poses to Vermonters: Just recently, a “notice of probable violation” was filed by the Department of Public Service (DPS), outlining the fact that VGS has never complied with or even identified the requirements for construction alongside the Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) as was mandated. Even more alarming, VGS was supposed to retain a “responsible person” with expertise in technical specifications and electrical safety to oversee construction of pipelines where induced voltage from overhead electric wires is of concern as a major risk to worker safety and a cause of corrosion and pipeline failure. They never complied with that requirement, and therefore had nobody on site with the necessary expertise to ensure safety of workers and ultimately of the pipeline. These examples of gross negligence, which put the safety of workers and communities at risk, are nothing short of outrageous. Worse yet, these violations came to the attention of engineering inspectors months ago, but are only being brought to public light now, after the construction is already completed in those areas. Who knows what errors have been made and what consequences we will bear if the pipeline explodes.

The PSB and Vermont Gas have failed to consider the laws that govern public park land such as Geprags.

 

The PSB continues to rule in favor of the project in spite of astronomical cost increases: On Sept. 7, the Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit was finally heard at the PSB. The foundation rightly argues that the PSB-granted certificate of public good for the project is inviable because the project is not a “public good” given the astronomical cost overruns. The CLF case was brought to the PSB two years ago, and they simply ignored it, apparently determined to wait until the pipeline was already in the ground and there would be no further opportunity for real consequences. Costs continue to increase.

The PSB continues to rule in favor of the project in spite of gross mismanagement of accounts: In late August, in prefiled testimony, a utility accountant working for the DPS to review VGS accounting stated, “I have reviewed invoices to cost reports for some 40-plus years and to my recollection have not encountered so much difficulty in tracing supporting documentation.” VGS wants to make ratepayers cover $134 million in costs. The DPS responded to the accounting report by tweaking the rules that govern rate charges, to avoid putting the company in “financial hardship” rather than holding it accountable. Ratepayers have no such advocate and will foot the bill. The DPS did claim that VGS could not recoup $35 million in costs from ratepayers because those costs were so “imprudent.”

The PSB continues to rule in favor of the project in spite of the destruction of precious wetlands and other natural resources: In Geprags we discovered that a wetland area that VGS consultants had not properly delineated, and now a second failed delineation has been documented, but only after VGS construction had already destroyed it. Earlier they announced that they had “accidentally” destroyed rare “harsh sunflowers” on a property in Monkton. Who knows how many other wetlands and other natural resources have already been destroyed since we can only view the damages on public lands.

The fact that fracking is clearly recognized as a major cause of global warming continues to elude Vermont Gas CEO Don Rendall and the PSB, who blindly insist on referring to gas as “clean” in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Just as they continue to obfuscate about the fact that ratepayers, especially residential ratepayers, are footing the ballooning bill for this misguided project.

This is only a small sample of the many failures of this project that the PSB continues to ignore.

After several years of fierce opposition to this pipeline, we have learned well that the PSB is immune to facts, and is not serving the public. (They recently tried to exclude the public from attending the Hinesburg eminent domain hearings, but were overruled by a federal judge.) The board is thoroughly beholden to VGS and Gov. Peter Shumlin who is ultimately responsible for forcing this project on the state.

We never anticipated a fair ruling from the PSB, but we know that we have a real chance on appeal at the Supreme Court. Vermont Gas representatives have said several times, in response to the rulings, that the opposition should “respect” the ruling. We will not stop opposing this pipeline in every manner possible out of respect for the safety of our communities, and the welfare of future generations.

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  • Nancy Baker

    What a wonderfully clear and concise justification of why Vermont Gas Systems, the Public Service Board and the Public Service Department, and the Governor need to be stopped. Now! Before any gas is pumped into any pipe.

  • I concur with the author, and fully support the immediate suspension of all new fossil fuel infrastructure. It is time to divest from fossil fuel and fully invest in renewables.

  • Kathy Blume

    Climate scientists tell us that we must build no new fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere if we’re to curb the worst effects of climate change. With all the renewable energy and home energy retrofit technologies available to us, a new, nearly state-length fracked gas pipeline makes absolutely no economic or environmental sense.

  • Laura Simon

    Dear Vermont,

    Everything Rachel says in this article points to why we should be outraged about the VGS Pipeline. We have a chance to stop it NOW. Go to Protect Geprags Park’s website. Please make a small or large donation. Comment on this article, spread it around. It’s about time the people speak out about these outrages and get the government to work for us. Laura Simon, Wilder, VT

    • Lydia Cale

      Sorry but Middlebury and Middlbury College want it – you lose. But you’re welcome to come to our latest drum circle on the Middlebury green to celebrate how sustainable we are…Not.

      • Len Schmidt

        You raise a good , if slightly sarcastic, point, Lydia. PSB has always been in the pocket of Big Energy, but this project would not have happened without Middlebury College support.

  • Lawrence Shelton

    As a Vermont land owner who aspires to leave a legacy to the generation that would be represented by my grand children’s grand children, I am keenly aware of the precedent that would be set in this case. As the Geprags sisters stipulated in donating this land for the public good, and as the PSB and VGS are striving to subvert the donors wishes, so should every private land owner in Vermont with the intent to leave a legacy be wary of a state willing to betray donors wishes in favor of corporate profits.

  • Jane Palmer

    This whole process..of approving the fracked gas pipeline, has brought it front and center how badly corrupted our so called “democracy” system is. Over the past four years, I have met very few people who support this project…and those people were in the position to gain from its construction. This is the corporations running the state and we need to take steps to correct the system. All of us. It all adds up. Do what you can.

  • I am sad and outraged, I must be intentional about staying in touch with the sadness for the outrage can take over. Outraged that our state government is so compliant in the destruction of life, the willful participation in the global climate crisis we are experiencing, and allows no voice from the people to shape their own society. Outraged that our democracy has no sense of local determination even when it is the law. Outraged that we now fully colonized, take our land, ruin our culture, and impose the free market system, corporatism, unfettered capitalism, profit at the expense of life, what ever name it is an evil ending life. Outrage is the correct response followed by action. Sad because the life of the planet is of no concern for our state leaders and corporate/economic leaders who control the formation and structure of our society. Sad because because we must alter our lives to confront this darkness and it is a darkness that ends life. Sad because of the lose of earth, from

  • to finish: Sad because of the lose of earth, from flowers, to animals, to humans, mountains, land and water. Allow that sadness to anchor my humanity as one of many beings on this earth and energize my action to hold the darkness and then push it back.

  • Barbara Forauer

    The commentary by Rachel states well the situation. It makes me so sad to think that VTGAS has been so negligent in their dealings with our land, our Vermont, our lives. Greed takes over the minds of many and this is the case here. And our PSB has not protected we the people from corporate takeovers but only supports them. We need less fossil fuels and to continue to build one with a specific shelf life is irresponsible.

  • Judith Sargent

    I have not before seen the whole case laid out so clearly. Thanks for the clear and concise writing. You have a point of view, but your writing is transparent, and no trickery or fancy rhetoric involved here. Appreciate what you’ve done here.

  • terence cuneo

    When I read this synopsis of the VGS project, which details all the levels at which the project is so deeply problematic, I am totally mystified as to how the PSB could’ve ever thought the project was a good idea. To think that decisions of this magnitude are in their hands is utterly depressing.

  • Brian Tokar

    A recent study from Oil Change International (described at http://priceofoil.org/2016/09/22/the-skys-limit-report/) documents how internationally agreed-upon limits on global warming pollution are incompatible with ANY new fossil fuel infrastructure. Current capacity will produce enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases to exceed those limits. Here in VT we need to make a commitment for no further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, period. This pipeline represents a terrible precedent, in addition to being unneeded and excessively costly.

  • Paula Schramm

    “On Sept. 7, the Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit was finally heard at the PSB. The foundation rightly argues that the PSB-granted certificate of public good for the project is inviable because the project is not a “public good” given the astronomical cost overruns. The CLF case was brought to the PSB two years ago, and they simply ignored it, apparently determined to wait until the pipeline was already in the ground and there would be no further opportunity for real consequences.”

    I went to the hearing on Sept.7 to hear the case presented by the CLF. The fact alone that the Public Service Board took two years to deign to hear their case makes it clear that they held a certain outcome already in mind…..can everyone say “rubber stamp”?

    I’m sorry the Dept. of Public Service could not have done a better job of representing the people. I look forward to the appeal to the Supreme Court, where, unlike the PSB, they will actually consider the precedent of “well settled law”.

    • John Zuppa

      Don’t fool yourself about the Supreme Court…Do you think this might be why…Shumlin wants to hurry up and in a fairly unprecedented manner…

      Appoint a NEW Justice…who will be replacing a Justice whose term ends AFTER the NEW Governor is in office…??

      Shumlin, like Trump, is incapable of seeing his failures…

  • Mary Alice Bisbee

    It is wonderful to see so many folks supporting the Hinesburg pipeline opponents! Let’s also address some of the other corporate greed and income inequality issues so rampant all around the state by expressing your political opinions as well.

  • It’s past time for the PSB to recognize that this pipeline is not in the public good for Vermonters. In addition to the environmental consequences and the fact that people have been driven from their homes, the cost overruns are extraordinary. The time to end this pipeline is now.

  • Cynthia Hendel

    VGS should be fired for incompetence,but we can’t fire them because the Public Service Board, and governor, and regulatory agencies have given approval after approval, holding VGS unaccountable for years of safety violations, broken protocols, faulty permitting, financial errors, runaway costs, skipped requirements, missing documentation, and damages to land and lives as they protect this company’s profits and deem it all a “public good.” Our regulators view this 41-mile project as just too big to follow the rules, so VGS can do as it pleases in a rush that risks land and lives and the safety of the pipeline. VGS only gets minor financial slaps at best, outrage per outrage, and so takes the state for the profits of the 7 billion dollar, Canadian energy giant,Gaz Metro. Its time for reason and responsibility. NO MORE FOSSIL FUEL INFRASTRUCTURE BUILD OUT. Suffering from fracked gas extraction is mounting worldwide.The climate and earth can’t take more of this and neither can Vermont.

  • Melanie Peyser

    “The DPS did claim that VGS could not recoup $35 million in costs from ratepayers because those costs were so ‘imprudent.'” DPS’s utility accounts expert also said that 100% of VGS’s capital costs could be denied because of imprudence, lack of documentation, failure to respond to information requests, etc. Commissioner of DPS, Chris Recchia, wants to grant VGS a one-year extension to gather (manufacture?) invoices and justifications. His reasoning for allowing this AND another $112 million in unjustified expenses? DPS is only holding VGS accountable for the “most egregious” problems with its accounts. DPS knows VGS spent the money. “We just don’t know how.” Recchia wants ratepayers punished if landowners want due process b/f their property is taken by eminent domain (every utility except VGS knows some landowners will exercise their constitutional rights they plan for the time needed for that litigation!). He also wants ratepayers punished for VGS’s misfeasance and malfeasance.

  • Arthur Hynes

    For those who think we need the pipelines and bomb trains because renewable energy can’t replace all our dirty energy, read this article and look at the study. Stanford University scientist Mark Jacobson has developed a 50-state roadmap for transforming the United States from dependence on fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/february/fifty-states-renewables-022414.html

  • Laura Simon

    Dear Vermonters. Everything Rachel says is true. It makes me so mad that we have to fight this pipeline when government should be protecting us from these damages vs supporting them. Laura Simon, Wilder, VT

  • Nate Palmer

    Amid all the concern about the fracked gas pipeline costs, our devoted (not to the public) Department of Public Service has supported VGS in their quest to renew the Alternative Regulation Plan which, in reality, reduces the risk to the utility, not the ratepayers, until next year. And, as you may have guessed, the PSB complied. You can read the PSB order here: http://psb.vermont.gov/sites/psb/files/orders/2016/September/8777 Order Granting extension of VGS ARP.pdf
    You can read more about the Alt Reg Plan here: http://digital.vpr.net/post/gmp-staff-bonuses-charged-customers-highlight-concerns-about-state-regulation-utilities#stream/0

  • Julie Mitchell

    Bottom line is your representation through the appointed PSB and Shumlin to make these decisions for your community. How to change this, is my question? What are the thoughts of the future governor, senators and representatives that we are voting to serve this November? How will they allocate responsibility to make these environmental decisions? And how to dismantle what we have now as this is sorely needed, and what will these entities be replaced with?

  • Karl Childers

    The hungry, hungry hypocrites on the left are certainly consistent, if not informed. They all want a certain standard of living that includes automobiles, cell phones, computers, etc. but they don’t want the infrastructure that makes that lifestyle possible. And facts are no good in debating a viewpoint based solely on emotion. You greenies who think that wind and solar will save us all, just where do you think the parts to build turbines and panels come from. That’s right, fossil fuels.

    • Melanie Peyser

      Maybe you could offer some facts about how this particular pipeline project will contribute to any of the things you note above. We don’t manufacture cars in Vermont, and this pipeline will end in VT. Our automobiles in VT don’t run on natural gas. Our cell phones aren’t manufactured here either. Hmmm…computers. Maybe you have a citation for that? This is an intrastate pipeline expansion that adds a 41 mile transmission backbone that will cost ratepayers $134 million PLUS interest and return on investment of 10%. VGS claims that it will serve only around 2600 potential new customers and that’s only if they want to lose money by converting to NG which is currently more expensive before counting conversion costs. I didn’t notice anything in this commentary about wind and solar saving us all. I agree that we should sticks with the facts – the facts of this concrete infrastructure and whether it’s necessary to take this park for an unnecessary, obsolete and hugely expensive safety risk.

    • terence cuneo

      Karl,
      I’ll make no claims about “greenies” in general but I know many of the greenies who’ve posted on this list and I’ll say two things about them: they know their stuff and they’re very smart. The charge that their viewpoint is “based solely on emotion” just isn’t true. I’ll also point out that all these people realize that we’re all dependent on an infrastructure that involves fossil fuels. Their contention is that we need not to expand this infrastructure and to transition away from it quickly by utilizing the best alternatives we have. It may be that this transition requires a certain amount of use of fossil fuels; that may be unavoidable. There’s nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about that.

  • Katharine Hikel, MD

    Meanwhile – from the public health perspective – here’s the National Transportation and Safety Board’s list of pipeline explosions:
    http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/pipeline.aspx

    It is negligent of the PSB not to require VTGas to insure all the lives and properties along its route; or at least be forced to hold however many millions in escrow as would cover injuries, deaths, damage, losses, etc. That would put the price of methane at a more realistic level.

    And, regarding price: for years, industry analysts have been screaming that the price of ”natural’ gas is way too low: http://www.wsj.com/articles/natural-gas-producers-face-painful-spring-1458864530

    Like any dealers, they want to get everyone hooked – THEN jack up the prices! Wait and see.
    Then – KABOOM!

    • Yesterday in NYC, a natural gas explosion killed a firefighter Captain chief, a building fire then explosion occurred. First responders, people nearby are at high risk.

  • I have talked with a friend who lives in Hinesburg about this travesty. In fact, the whole pipeline is a travesty. The corruption runs deep in natural gas and wind development in Vermont. I am mad enough that I just made a donation to the Protect Geprags Park Legal Fund. I hope they kick some serious butt in court.

  • Every morning my ritual includes checking my media for Addison County #Fracking pipeline fight updates.Today, thanks to the Digger for publishing this letter. Addison independent has been pro-pipeline. They accept VT gas advertising money, the sidebar flashing “Save money, buy (Canadian Fracked). gas”
    Rachel put into words a perfect description of the issues around this poorly planned, destructive, rubber stamped project. There are no photos here of the path of destruction Vermont Gas has created in idyllic Hinesburg-Monkton,Vermont. Ledges blasted, old growth trees ripped out, rare sunflowers destroyed. Destroyed Forever. I never want to see another “This land conserved forever”. Please add, unless a political force pries it from your cold dead hands.
    When we moved to this farm, people said, conserve, donate easements to land trust. I knew then that lawyers can accomplish that which can be imagined, even what appears to be unfair, unethical, mean or wrong. Yup, I was right.

  • Lisa Barrett

    Please donate to the Protect Geprags Legal Fund. http://www.protectgeprags.org/donation

    More fossil fuel infrastructure equals more disastrous warming of our planet.Period. “Natural” gas is mostly methane–a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon. Our government–the DPS and the PSB–is NOT protecting us, so we must rely on a small group of Hinesburg citizens to protect us.

  • Alice Leeds

    Like many Vermonters, I am shocked and saddened by the Public Service Board’s illegal and unethical actions and remain hopeful that Vermont’s Supreme Court will uphold the law.

  • VT proclaims it’s progressive and it wants to be a leader in renewable energy. Last time I checked, fracked gas is not on the list of renewable energy. So keep it out of our state – no fracked gas means none pulled from VT, none goes through VT.

    I’ve been a part of the VGS pipeline process since Feb 2016, the ignorance and closed mindedness of the PSB, DPS, VGS and Gov Shumlin is a disgrace. Their theme is to ignore science – not only that but they’re only focused on what is good for them at this very moment. NOt a care in the world about their children’s future, your children’s future.
    Shame on them in spades

  • Robert Hyams

    “The mismeasurement of wetlands seems to have been an accidental oversight on the part of the company”, said Natural Resources Commissioner Deb Markowitz, this according to a July 8 VT Digger article.

    Accidental oversight? Really Secretary Markowitz? Apparently you haven’t seen the wetland.

    As it turns out, the only other public parcel in Hinesburg impacted by the pipeline contains another wetland – incorrectly delineated. It seems more like a deliberate practice than an accident.

    Clearly the state does not have the will or the ability to regulate a project of this magnitude. Maybe Vermont could take a hint and get out of the pipeline business all together.

  • Ben Wilson

    Ok everyone, can we please step away from the ledge. Every one of us uses fossil fuel infrastructure. Every time we turn the lights on, drive a car ,heat our homes etc.. No one is truly independent of this reality. The abundant availability of energy is what gives folks the comfort and quality of life that we enjoy. The burning of fossil fuels has ended much more suffering than it has caused. We should be thankful for it. Driving a Prius does not exempt you from participation.
    Now, this particular pipeline is and should be a matter of debate, however if you live in Burlington or Hinesburg and enjoy the warmth of Vermont Gas in your home or apartment and are vehemently against this project than you are a hypocrite and you are simply preventing others from getting what you have.
    There are also many unfounded accusations in this screed regarding the construction process and electrical oversight that should require sources or citations.

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