Two days before Christmas came the news environmental activists and landowners in Addison County were dreading: The Public Service Board approved Vermont Gas’s plan to build a 43-mile, $86.6 million natural gas pipeline from Chittenden County south to Middlebury.
But neither the stamp of approval, nor frigid temperatures and biting wind in downtown Burlington, deterred protestors from turning out for a rally Saturday against that decision. Altogether, around 75 people met up outside One Main Street, waving placards and banners and stamping their feet to keep warm.
The proposed pipeline has fueled opposition throughout Vermont. Environmentalists decry the additional construction of fossil fuel infrastructure instead of renewable energy resources, and they oppose the technology used to obtain the Canadian natural gas. A portion of the gas the pipeline would carry is obtained in Canada using hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”
In 2012, Vermont became the first state in the country to ban fracking. To turn around and transport fracked gas into the state strikes Sue Morris, of Marshfield, as hypocritical. “Either we want to fight global warming or we don’t,” she said as the rally kicked into gear. “We have to decide.”
The December PSB decision gives the go-ahead to the first of two phases Vermont Gas is eyeing in its efforts to extend natural gas coverage. The second, which is still under consideration by the PSB, would carry gas underground from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
“We weren’t particular surprised [by the PSB’s decision],” Alice Evans of Waitsfield said today. “But we were disappointed.”
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Protestors aren’t tossing in the towel yet. Their goal in Saturday's protest? To let Vermont Gas know that, despite the PSB decision, the pipeline’s opponents are pledging continued resistance to the controversial project. The protestors came from a hodgepodge of local social and environmental advocacy groups, including Rising Tide Vermont, 350 Vermont, Occupy Central Vermont and the local chapter of the International Socialist Organization.
“The state process has really failed our communities,” said Sara Mehalick, a spokesperson for Rising Tide Vermont. Mehalick says opponents of the pipeline are exploring their next steps. They’re educating landowners about property rights and intervening in the regulatory process as Vermont Gas tries to secure the final permits necessary for construction. And today, dozens signed a pledge of resistance to “put our bodies in the way, if necessary” should Vermont Gas move forward with construction.
The mood was festive as protestors prepared to march up Main Street. A few musicians on horns kept up a cheerful medley — until one of the trumpeters found her instrument’s keys frozen in place. She ducked inside Main Street Landing and propped her trumpet on a nearby radiator, cradling pocket hand-warmers around the keys.
The trumpet was back in working order by the time the protestors began their march up Main Street, briefly snarling traffic. The band struck up a jaunty marching tune, and the group chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, fracked gas has got to go,” and, “The water, the water, the water’s on fire. We don’t need no gas, let the corporations burn.” A few passing motorists honked in support.
The march culminated at a granite sculpture in Courthouse Plaza that spells “democracy,” a stone’s throw from the law offices of Downs Rachlin Martin, the firm representing Vermont Gas in the Public Service Board proceedings. “It’s an ice rink!” remarked one, skidding across the slick ground in front of the statue. That didn’t deter a handful of protestors, including Pika Morgan, from scrambling atop the sculpture and addressing the crowd.
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She wants Vermont Gas to know that, despite the PSB’s decision, “we’re not going away.”
Morgan, a native Vermonter who spent time protesting a tar sands pipeline in Texas. Watching Texans fight the seizure of their land under eminent domain only steels Morgan’s resolve now to stop the Vermont Gas project.
“Our fight to protect our land is really just starting,” Morgan said.
Kathryn Flagg is a Seven Days staff writer. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine. She lives in Shoreham with her husband and son.