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.