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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Vermont Gas, Pipeline Foes Face Off at Public Service Board Session

Posted By on Thu, Aug 4, 2016 at 7:54 PM

click to enlarge Protesters outside the Vermont Gas hearing Thursday - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Protesters outside the Vermont Gas hearing Thursday
In a small room in a large warehouse, the Public Service Board on Thursday heard Vermont Gas Systems make a case for why it must send its natural gas pipeline through a public park in Hinesburg. And it listened as James Dumont, an attorney representing seven town residents who use the park, argued against the company’s request.

The meeting, which lasted all day, dealt with minutia. But the stakes are high: This is the final right-of-way that Vermont Gas needs to complete its 41-mile pipeline from Colchester to Middlebury, which company officials hope to do by the end of the year.

“This is the last piece of the puzzle in our effort to being able to complete the pipeline,” said Vermont Gas president Don Rendall, in an interview after the hearing. 

Outside the building Thursday morning, pipeline protesters lay on the pavement, their faces painted chalky white and bodies cloaked in white sheets. They explained to reporters that they were staging a “die-in” as the casualties of climate change. 

click to enlarge A protester - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • A protester
Several dozen people sang hymns. They held sunflowers and signs that said “Green not Greed,” “Protect our Park,” and “Another Vermonter Against the Pipeline.” A handful of police officers looked on; at least one snapped photos of the spectacle.

Thursday’s hearing was especially controversial because the Public Service Board attempted to bar the public from attending because protestors had disrupted past hearings. A retired attorney, Lisa Barrett, challenged the order in court, and a federal judge ordered the PSB to open the meeting to the public. But the board announced Wednesday that the meeting room it had selected had space for only six members of the public; the other 42 slots would be occupied by people involved in the case and members of the news media.

At the beginning of the meeting, Barrett stood and asked the board to reschedule its hearing, and to move it elsewhere to accommodate more people — a request that went ignored.

There was a disruption: A man accused Vermont Gas of “stealing public land” and the PSB of “violating [his] First Amendment rights.”

“I can’t be in this room and witness this bullshit,” he said, then walked out.

Vermont Gas already has an agreement with the Hinesburg Selectboard to send the pipeline though Geprags Community Park. But because the land was given to the town under the condition that it be used for recreation or education, the company still needs to use eminent domain. The seven residents that Dumont represents say the deal the selectboard struck doesn’t protect their interests. They have “intervener” status in the case — despite an attempt by Vermont Gas to get the PSB to revoke it. 

Dumont made a number of points during his extensive questioning of Vermont Gas representatives. Among them: that horizontal directional drilling, which the company agreed to use to reduce the impact on the park’s wetlands, still has environmental risks, and that the company had not fully explored alternate routes for the pipeline.

Fundamentally, Dumont is challenging the eminent domain request on the grounds that legal precedent prohibits the gas company from seizing land already designated for public use for a different public use. 

The Vermont Gas attorneys requested that the PSB issue a decision in September. “What we’re worried about is we’re running out of daylight to construct the project,” said one of them, William Dodge.

It’s unclear whether that request will be granted. 
click to enlarge Two protesters held a banner early Thursday. - TRISTAN VON DUNTZ
  • Tristan Von Duntz
  • Two protesters held a banner early Thursday.



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Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

Bio:
Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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