Vermont Gas Systems has asked state regulators for permission to begin preparing for the construction of its Addison County pipeline extension before it secures a federal wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This is the final permit needed by Vermont Gas Systems, which is a subsidiary of Gaz Metro with a Vermont headquarters in South Burlington, before it begins construction of the 41-mile pipeline extension from Chittenden County to Middlebury. The pipeline will temporarily impact about 23 acres of wetlands, the largest area of Vermont wetlands ever reviewed by the Corps.
The company is required to obtain all necessary permits before beginning construction or site preparation as a condition of its certificate of public good granted last December.
Vermont Gas had planned to begin construction this month, and in its filing to the Vermont Public Service Board last week seeking a waiver, it said the permit delay could affect the cost and schedule of the project. The company wants to begin deliveries to construction staging areas in Williston and New Haven, and had planned to begin the work May 1.
During construction, the wetlands will be disturbed for a trench to bury the pipeline and construction mats to support heavy machinery.
When the construction is complete, the trenches will be filled and the mats will be removed, returning the wetland to normal in about a year, state and federal officials said.
About two acres of forested wetlands will be cleared, the Corps said.
"It should operate the same," said Michael Adams, permit project manager for the Corps, about the wetlands when the construction is complete. "The function and values should return."
Wetlands provide a habitat for a wide range of wildlife. They also clean and hold water, and control runoff erosion.
A gas mainline will be placed under the Winooski River in Essex Junction and in Williston and under Otter Creek in Vergennes and Middlebury. The company will use horizontal directional drilling to trench up to 25 feet beneath these streambeds.
To compensate for unavoidable impacts, Vermont Gas will make payments to the Ducks Unlimited Vermont in-lieu fee program, an off-site mitigation program headed by a private wetlands conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited.
The company will purchase 119,203 square feet of mitigation credits for unavoidable impacts, according to the Agency of Natural Resources.
A Vermont Gas spokesperson was not available for comment before this story was published on Tuesday.
In a filing to the Public Service Board, Kimberly Hayden, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin who is representing Vermont Gas, said the Agency of Natural Resources, the Agency of Transportation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Public Service support the waiver request.
"VGS is authorized to represent to the Board that it has conferred with ANR, TRANS, ACOE, and the Department of Public Service, and all four agencies have no objection to this limited waiver request," Hayden wrote.
Adams of the Army Corps of Engineers said the company would be beginning construction at its own risk.
"Our decision hasn't been made on their application," he said. "And they could be doing work that is contrary to our final decision."
He did not say when the application review is expected to be complete. The permit is required under the federal Clean Water Act.
The Agency of Natural Resources approved the company's state wetlands permit this month. The agency reviewed 3.7 acres of wetlands impact and found there to be only temporary impacts resulting from trenching the line. Where there will be unavoidable impacts, the state is requiring the company to drill under the wetlands, according to the agency.
Kim Greenwood, water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the project's cumulative impacts on wetlands could be harmful despite the agency's approval.
"There isn't a single program at the agency that addresses cumulative impacts," she said. "We don't have a good sense of how this is going to play out. We know that it is going to be bad."
Pipeline opponents are asking state regulators to deny the company's request to begin construction before obtaining the federal permit.
"This is just one more example of Vermont Gas seeking an end-run around the public process," said Jane Palmer, a Monkton resident affected by the pipeline, in a statement to the anti-pipeline direct action group Rising Tide Vermont.
"A Board order is a Board order - In light of the fact that VGS has been treating homeowners so poorly the Board should reject this proposal. If the PSB lets Vermont Gas get away with this, what other restrictions will Vermont Gas attempt to whittle away? What kind of protection will landowners have from the CPG if VGS can just ask for changes when they want them? This act makes us feel even more vulnerable than we were before if that is possible," she said.
Vermont Gas has applied for a state permit to construct the second phase of its pipeline extension from Middlebury to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, New York. The company plans to eventually bring gas to Rutland.