BERLIN >> A lawyer for citizens trying to block a Vermont natural gas pipeline from going through a public park grilled witnesses for the company Thursday amid continued protests of the plan.
Activists pushing for scrapping a pipeline project approved by state regulators nearly three years ago sought to seize on a condemnation hearing for land in Hinesburg's Geprags Park as a ticket to their goal. They see the Vermont Gas Systems project as furthering the state's reliance on climate-damaging fossil fuels.
"At this moment in time we cannot afford, either financially or environmentally, to continue to build fossil fuel infrastructure," said Theora Ward, a Hinesburg resident who said she did not become involved in the issue until well after the Public Service Board's December 2013 approval for the project.
"I am upset and saddened that in their race to complete the pipeline Vermont Gas has disrupted people's lives and forced them out of their homes, destroyed endangered vegetation, and disturbed the land all along its route" Ward said.
The company has maintained throughout that it wants to bring a reliable and less expensive energy alternative — piped natural gas — to parts of Vermont that currently lack it. The state's only natural gas supplier is looking to expand from its historic territory in Chittenden and Franklin counties in northwestern Vermont.
Ward was among about three dozen activists who held signs, sang and, at one point, staged a "die-in," lying in the parking lot outside a former warehouse on a back road where the board moved the hearing from its usual quarters in downtown Montpelier.
The board announced last month it would close the eminent domain hearing to the public, citing disruptions by demonstrators at previous hearings. It later said the media could attend. On Monday, a federal judge ruled the hearing must be open to the public.
Aside from lawyers, town and company officials and the media, the venue chosen Thursday could accommodate just six members of the public. Others waited outside under police supervision for a chance at an open seat when someone left. The session also was live-streamed on the internet. The room's small size drew complaints from activists who demanded a larger room to accommodate the public.
During the session, lawyer James Dumont, representing project opponents, pressed company officials to describe how thoroughly they had studied alternatives to routing the pipeline, so as to avoid the Hinesburg park.