Agencies seek expanded probe into Vermont Gas pipeline

Vermont Gas Systems’ South Burlington offices. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Two state agencies have asked for an expanded investigation into Vermont Gas Systems’ recently completed 41-mile gas pipeline to determine whether the utility failed to install devices on the pipeline meant to prevent it from draining wetlands.
Vermont Gas said it backs the investigation in a filing made with the Public Utility Commission on March 22. The Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Public Service issued filings the same day requesting the expanded probe.
Vermont Gas asked the PUC to hire an independent expert to carry out a comprehensive investigation into standards and practices followed throughout the pipeline’s construction “to confirm the safety and integrity of the pipeline.”
The PUC has already initiated an investigation to find out whether Vermont Gas buried a section of the pipeline as deeply as its permit requires.
All three entities submitted their latest filings in response to a request from Bristol-based attorney Jim Dumont earlier this month asking the PUC to expand that investigation to include a range of alleged failures by Vermont Gas. These failures represent “potentially catastrophic violations of critical public safety requirements,” he said in that motion, filed at the end of February.
It accuses Vermont Gas of failing to install “bentonite trench breakers,” clay inserts that prevent water from flowing along the pipeline’s long axis. These devices were meant to serve as plugs at wetland boundaries to prevent water from leaving the wetlands. Their installation is required under the permit authorizing the pipeline’s construction.
“If a [bentonite trench breaker] is missing, then the pipeline trench may drain the water from a wetland,” Dumont’s complaint states. “This is a potentially irreversible harm.”
An ANR official confirmed this possibility.
“The worst case is that water from [a wetland or a stream] would basically travel along the pipeline, away from the wetland or stream, and affect the hydrology of that” body of water, said Billy Coster, ANR’s director of policy and planning.
“It’s not clear that that would happen in any instance, but given the potential for that to happen, for the pipeline to serve as a factor to pull water away from those resources, these trench breakers are installed to prevent that,” Coster said.
Dumont alleges at least seven separate safety violations in his Feb. 28 complaint, in addition to the trench breakers. On account of all of these issues, Dumont said the PUC should comprehensively investigate the pipeline instead of limiting the investigation to the pipeline’s burial depth along 2,500 feet near New Haven.
Jim Dumont, an attorney from Bristol, has called for an expanded investigation into Vermont Gas’ pipeline. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Both Vermont Gas and the Department of Public Service say Dumont’s request for an expanded investigation is redundant, as the pipeline was inspected throughout the construction process, but both Vermont Gas and the DPS say they’d like such an investigation if for no other reason than to settle the matter.
“This has taken a lot of time and resources for everyone involved, so we feel that the best way to move forward is to support an independent and thorough review of what we’ve done,” said Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent. “We understand the concerns that are out there, but that’s why we’re supporting [the hiring of] an outside expert.”
The DPS does not believe a comprehensive investigation of the pipeline is warranted, said Jim Porter, the department’s director of public advocacy. But it does support the hiring of an independent investigator to review several specific issues, he said in the department’s filing with the PUC.
Vermont Gas’ alleged failure to install bentonite trench breakers is one of the issues worth investigating, Porter wrote, adding that the department would assist the PUC in whatever investigation it deemed appropriate.
Although everyone involved agrees that an independent expert should take a second look at the pipeline, it’s not clear where to find such a person, Dumont said.
Officials with the PUC have already sought — and failed — to find an independent expert for the PUC’s original investigation into the pipeline’s burial depth, Dumont said. The PUC published a request for qualified bidders, but didn’t receive a single bid, he said.
“That is a very legitimate concern,” Dumont said, when asked if there are experts on the subject who don’t have close ties to the industry.
“Almost all the work in this field, you do for a gas company, and people are obviously worried: if they do an independent safety evaluation, they may never work for a gas company again,” Dumont said.
An ostensibly independent expert has already found that the Vermont Gas pipeline was built according to industry standards and written specifications.
The Department of Public Service last month asked the PUC to levy a $25,000 fine against Vermont Gas for failing to comply with written standards of the pipeline permit. In response, Vermont Gas late last month provided to the PUC “an independent review” of the DPS’ proposed fine and the underlying findings.
That review, conducted by Mark Hereth of Texas-based The Blacksmith Group, found no impropriety on the part of Vermont Gas, and found that many of the DPS allegations amounted to a difference of opinion.
The assessment,” submitted to the PUC on Feb. 28 this year does not disclose that Hereth has been, since Nov. 6, 2017, the chairman of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Foundation.
George Young, the PUC’s general counsel, said the commission could not comment on their deliberations about the investigation requests, but would at some point issue an order laying out the next steps regarding the pipeline.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Agencies seek expanded probe into Vermont Gas pipeline.