State regulators investigate Vermont Gas pipeline burial depth

A sign alerts drivers and residents to Vermont Gas pipeline construction work in Williston. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger

State regulators are investigating whether Vermont Gas Systems buried a pipeline in Addison County as deeply as required by its permit.

The attorney who requested the investigation said the pipeline burial depth was too shallow in numerous locations.

The pipeline’s 2013 permit required it to be buried at least four feet deep in a 2,500-foot section near New Haven, but in at least 18 locations along that length, the pipe was not buried that deeply, which Vermont Gas has acknowledged. The pipeline was completed in April.

It’s buried under as little as three feet of earth in spots along parts of that stretch, the Department of Public Service has claimed. Department officials have said that the pipe is nevertheless buried deeply enough to be safe.

Vermont Gas representatives have filed a request with the Public Utility Commission (formerly the Public Service Board) asking for a retroactive amendment to the pipeline permit that would treat the burial-depth discrepancy as an insubstantial change from the original permit’s terms.

The commission on Friday opened an investigation into whether the burial-depth discrepancies are insubstantial, as Vermont Gas claims.

If the deviations are found to be non-substantial, Vermont Gas could be required to complete some paperwork to make the permit current. If the deviations are found to be substantial, the commission may impose fines or other penalties, including requiring the pipeline be reburied.

But the attorney who requested this investigation now claims he has evidence that Vermont Gas failed to meet burial depths required in the pipeline’s permit at far more locations than the 18 that the commission is looking into.

Jim Dumont, a Bristol lawyer representing pipeline opponents, filed a second request asking the Public Utility Commission to expand its investigation to include the pipeline’s burial depth beneath waterways and beneath residential areas. Dumont said he and others have found documents that appear to show Vermont Gas didn’t bury the pipe in these areas as deeply as the permit required as well.

The permit requires the pipe to be buried at least seven feet deep beneath streams, and four feet deep in residential areas. Dumont said construction documents show a five-foot depth between dozens of streams and suggest that the pipe is buried under as little as three feet of earth in residential areas.

Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent repeated the same answer twice when asked if the pipeline was buried deeply enough.
Parent said only that “this pipeline is built safely and adequately, period.”

She added: “We’re proud of the work we’ve done” in providing Addison County residents with the option of buying the company’s natural gas.

Federal pipeline regulations generally require the pipe to be buried at least three feet underground, and Parent has said before that the pipeline does meet that standard.

Dumont said it was on the town of Monkton’s website where he and his clients found the construction documents that appear to show the burial-depth discrepancies.

Jim Porter of the Department of Public Service said that he can’t comment on Dumont’s new allegations, but said the department is unaware of any deviations from the pipeline permit other than the 18 now under investigation.

The commission has asked VGS to provide by mid-August evidence and certification attesting to the pipeline’s true burial depth. Porter said the department’s waiting until then to decide what its next moves will be.

“We’re looking forward to this investigation playing out, and we trust at the end of the investigation we’ll be where we need to be,” Porter said.

This new discovery continues a pattern stretching back to at least 2013, Dumont said, when Vermont Gas underestimated the pipeline’s cost and failed to report to the PSB that the pipe’s costs would significantly exceed original estimates.

The board fined VGS $100,000 in that case, but the missteps that led to the fine have continued, he said.

“It looks like, this was a huge project, and this little company just wasn’t up to it,” Dumont said. “They don’t have experience doing projects like this.”

Vermont Gas is one of two Vermont subsidiaries of $7 billion Quebec energy giant Gaz Métro, the other being the state’s largest electric utility, Green Mountain Power.

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  • Emily Daroga

    Disheartened at all of the dishonesty and lackadaisical planning on the part of VT Gas. Even more disappointed that this project ever passed legislation considering our state “goal” of reaching 90% renewables by 2050. If representatives are considering putting up with this crude construction of a pipeline so that we can continue to lose billions of dollars in our budget every year to pay for and perpetuate the fossil fuel industry, who are they representing? Hopefully Dumont can find the legality of this project illegitimate, and hopefully more representatives and folks across Vermont can look more into transitioning their energy reliance toward local, community based renewable energy plans.

  • Bill Gee

    If the permit says “4 feet” then the pipeline should be buried “4 feet”, period. For VT Gas to bury the pipe 3-feet, and then go back to the state and say…

    “You know, the Federal Regs say we can bury the pipe 3-feet and so that’s what we did. Can we get that permit changed retroactively because we don’t recognize your state’s regulatory authority and we think y’all are clueless tree huggers for putting that 4-feet requirement in the permit in the first place? Thanks!”

    If the Department of Public Service lets this slide, then they can kiss whatever regulatory authority they had good-bye. If Vermont has a higher standard than the Feds because we give a damn about our environment, then we should stick to our guns.

  • Edward Letourneau

    It sounds like they hit bedrock in some areas. If so, there is no safety issue, so what is the issue? — Besides people with an axe to grind.

    • Dennis Works

      Edward Letourneau: Please provide sources for your statement “it sounds like they hit bedrock in some areas.” I have found nothing in this article or elsewhere, that indicates that is the case.

      Also, you stated that if they hit bedrock, that somehow equates to no safety issue if the pipeline is buried only 3 feet (or 2 feet or 1 feet, etc.). I would be delighted to have you provide engineering facts that would support that view.

      Thank you.

    • Matthew Davis

      That’s the irony…in areas they did hot bedrock so they blasted to be able to bury the pipe. Many of the areas where the pipe is shallower than permitted, there is no bedrock.

  • Mary Martin

    Classic. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. VT Gas did the same thing with the harsh sunflowers. They applied for a takings permit; then faced with the delays that would cause, they withdrew the application and just plowed them down. Oops, sorry go ahead and fine us. It was cheaper for them to do it that way. Time and time again they have felt they were above the laws and regulations.

  • Jane Palmer

    Happy to hear the PUC is opening an investigation and trying to feel positive that the commission will see VGS in its true colors. We know what happened. It wasn’t an oops. It wasn’t a good ol college try. It was a huge corporation cutting costs by ignoring safety specs that were discussed and designed specifically for this installation. I know. I was there. I was forced to trust DPS when they said they would oversee this construction and be sure it was safely installed. During the past four and half years, it has become painfully apparent that DPS ultimately does what is best for VGS not the public. So I don’t trust DPS or VGS to do the right thing. We need an independently hired expert to do a depth of cover study the entire length of the pipeline and if it is not buried as deep as was PROMISED the gas should be shut off and the 20 or so customers in Middlebury can go back to buying it as CNG. (and the ratepayers should be off the hook for the $134 million because the pipeline will not be used or useful)