2018 State of the Pipeline

Citizens continue to challenge Vermont Gas ANGP pipeline project as a very real threat to public safety. It is a threat to our safety because of the climate impacts – since natural gas is methane, a more potent greenhouse gas even than carbon. But further, problems with construction practices have left Vermont with a pipeline that threatens to leak or even explode.

A current case before the Public Utility Commission (PUC), is focused on shallow depth of cover in a New Haven swamp, and failure to comply with permitting requirements for notification of blasting.  VGS filed for a “nonsubtantial change” to their certificate of public good (CPG) permit, admitting they had not buried the pipe deep enough in the swamp. We argued that the New Haven swamp might not be the only place where the pipe was not buried deep enough. 

A Public Hearing on this case, held two nights before Thanksgiving, was remarkably well attended (thanks to all of you who made the trek!) As usual, there were passionate and well- informed people speaking eloquently about all that is wrong with this pipeline.  

We apparently were convincing in arguing the need for independent measurements of pipeline depth, rather than relying on VGS reporting. An independent assessment was ordered shortly thereafter!

We have also argued that the issue of pipe supports, padding and backfill (rock-free material placed under, around and over the pipeline to support and protect it) is intimately correlated with depth, since the trench must accommodate those, as well as the pipe itself. That opens the door in this case a bit further in important ways. 

We know that padding, supports and backfill installation is very specifically detailed in the Certificate of Public Good (CPG) and associated permits. Proper compliance with those specs is considered integral to safe construction.  And we know that proper padding and supports were NOT used in at least several locations, including precisely the same swamp in New Haven where the pipe was not buried deep enough, that is the focus of our current case.

Construction in the New Haven swamp is also inside the VELCO right of way, i.e. under high voltage transmission lines.  In other words, at just this one location that is the focus of this case, the pipe is 1) too shallow, 2) at risk of corrosion due to AC interference from proximity to the transmission lines, and 3) lacks proper padding and support. Perhaps there are even more issues. 

What really happened in New Haven? According to a Michels employee we deposed, the swamp was “muck” and “ooze”, and would not hold a ditch: “no matter what you did or how you tried, it [mud] would just keep coming in [to the trench]”. According to VGS they employed a technique they refer to as “sink in swamp” which involved laying the pipe in a staging trench and then digging around it to enable the pipe to sink down further into the muck. This technique was nowhere detailed in construction specifications incorporated in the CPG permit.

The above photograph was taken in November 2016, after construction, by the same (deposed) Michels employee. He told us that he had suggested that alternative modes of construction (using “sheeting”) in the area might be a better option, but was told: “just get it done and make it look good later.” Indeed, they got it done, but it does not look good!

In a “root cause analysis” of the events in New Haven, VGS Vice President of Operations, John St Hilaire claimed that construction in the New Haven swamp began in early September 2016 and was completed on September 20th; that VELCO was informed of the shallow burial problem in mid November, and DPS was informed in December. VGS sought approval from VELCO to leave the pipe as is (too shallow), and negotiated for that until a final approval from VELCO was granted in April 2017. VGS did not file a request for a nonsubstantial change to their CPG permit until June 2017.  The CPG required that VGS inform the state of any major changes to construction immediately - not months after the fact. If they had informed the state in a timely manner, other options beyond “get it done and make it look good later” could have been considered. In characteristic manner, VGS chose their strategy to “violate now, request forgiveness later”.

Depth of cover under stream crossings along the entire route is also at issue in this case. VGS initially proposed in their Water Quality Certification, part of the CPG, to do HDD under around 15 stream crossings (of a total 33 between Williston and Middlebury).  VGS testified in the initial permit proceedings that horizontal directional drilling (HDD) was the way to protect streams. But the number of crossings where HDD was utilized, shrank substantially.  Furthermore, the CPG required that VGS bury the pipe at least 7 feet under streams that would be crossed using open trench construction, (not HDD). That too shrank - to a minimum of just 3 feet for most streams.  Depth under streams is meant to protect the pipe from exposure given inevitable erosion of stream beds. In sum, the conditions for streams included in the CPG were degraded, diminished and ignored.

We are sifting through thousands of pages of documents – and these are only some of the issues that are emerging. Back in October 2016 and again in April 2016, we delivered a long list of concerns and their documented basis to the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). They opened an investigation. Issues we raised included problems with welding, with HDD, various concerns about pipe coatings (the first line of defense against corrosion), failure to comply with electrical safety protocols required when doing construction under high voltage transmission lines, and other very serious concerns. Perhaps most fundamental was VGS persistent failure to have provided comprehensive written specifications for construction to their contractors.

PHMSA staff did come to Vermont, queried the DPS inspector, and issued an evaluation report. The state received a score of ZERO for failing to document or resolve probable violations to ensure compliance!

Even now, as gas is flowing to Middlebury, it is not clear if, or how the problems we raised to attention of PHMSA were ever resolved.

A key aspect of safe construction is keeping detailed records.  Those records are essential for safe ongoing operation of the pipeline, since they indicate what is under ground, where, and what issues might require future monitoring or attention. VGS was required to provide detailed “as built” drawings for the entire pipeline route within 6 months of starting operation. Gas has been flowing to the top of Geprags Park as of October 2016, and then to Middlebury as of April 2017. We requested copies of the as-built drawings in November 2017, but VGS tells us they still do not have them.

We have many, many questions, and there are many other issues that could be and should be raised.  But we are constrained by the boundaries of the case – which arose from VGS filing for a nonsubstantial change to their permit on admission of failing to bury the pipeline deep enough in 18 locations in the New Haven swamp. VGS is claiming this one area in New Haven is the only place the pipe is too shallow – coincidentally it is the only place where we took photos and reported the problem to PHMSA. We wish that it were possible to convey all that we have learned - all the questions and concerns that arise from detailed study of the many thousands of pages of documents associated with this project. VGS has far greater access to DPS and the PUC and can easily pay for their lawyers. Yet, we are doing the job that DPS is supposed to have done, and at the same time we have to fundraise to pay our lawyer, while also working day jobs.

 PS: if you can, please donate here: http://www.protectgeprags.org/donation

 Many may be unaware that VGS is currently engaged in several law suits. One currently underway is a suit brought by a worker who was injured by a “PIG” which is an inline tool that they send shooting through the pipe and which (due to a “time and labor saving measure” came hurtling out and hit him as he was standing in the pipeline trench – not having been notified of the risk. He pointed out that the pipe had to undergo extensive cleaning because, due to delays, the pipe had been sitting out in the weather for months “causing it to create large amounts of scaling and rust inside.”[transcript from PACER review of case]

Another case which has been underway since 2015 involves suit and countersuit with VGS and their first contractor, Over and Under (OU). OU claims that VGS created long costly delays, failed to provide a contract that was in accordance with initial project bid document proposal, failed to pay them for work completed, and then terminated their work without cause.  VGS says OU argued too much over the terms of the contract, refused to sign it and meanwhile did poor quality construction that resulted in cost overruns. Whoever is at fault, we the public ultimately bear the burden. Within the first 6 miles of construction, along I-289 and the route of potential future CIRC highway, the pipe was not installed to proper depth, among other issues.  Some had to be dug up and reinstalled – other sections still remain too shallow.

 The long view: what we see as we look back and forward over the years of this fight:  Governor Shumlin insisted on this project, perhaps even against the best interests of VGS – the project was far bigger than anything they had done before.  DPS, the PUC went along and Vermont government did everything in its’ power to ensure the pipeline was constructed, even in spite of strong, persistent, powerful public opposition from the start.  The fight dragged on over years, and became increasingly ugly as it became ever more blatantly obvious how misguided the project is – with cost overruns, new understanding of fracking and methane, shifting energy markets, lack of demand for gas, and growing awareness of serious problems with construction.  DPS and the PUC were in too deep and did not see a way out, they were committed, they continued to support the project and disregard the public, even going so far as to attempt to bar public access to hearings. 

The PUC now has a new chair, Anthony Roisman. With new faces in the agencies, a startling cumulative history of opposition, and a growing mountain of evidence of serious public safety risks resulting from VGS recklessness and failed DPS oversight, the ground has perhaps shifted a bit. We are working to submit all that we have learned to the PUC and further documenting facts by taking more, (and expensive!) depositions. Some, especially VGS and the failed DPS regulators may heartily wish to sweep this whole horrendous mess under the rug, let bygones be bygones, and keep fingers crossed that there will not be a terrible pipeline incident in Vermont.  But we are not going along with that. We believe that persistence is paying off, and that the safety of our friends and neighbors and our beautiful state of Vermont is worth fighting for.