A coalition of Vermont groups, including 350 Vermont, Protect Geprags Park, Central Vermont Climate Action, Just Power, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Upper Valley Affinity Group, Rutland Climate Coalition and Toxics Action Center has requested that the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) take over Vermont intrastate pipeline monitoring and enforcement, initiate an investigation into whether VT DPS has failed to correct potential non-compliance with minimum construction standards on already installed pipeline segments, and reject the Vermont Department of Public Service’s (VT DPS) pending certification under 49 USC 60105.
To maintain state jurisdiction over pipeline safety, including the construction of new facilities, Vermont DPS must certify annually that its pipeline safety program meets minimum federal standards. The groups say that when it comes to new pipeline construction, Vermont DPS is not measuring up, and the public is being put at risk.
Citing allegations detailed in a pending Notice of Probable Violation, as well as information from documents released by the Department of Public Service in response to records requests, and from their own direct observations, the group concludes that Vermont regulators have consistently failed to follow up on safety violations.[i] This lax oversight, they say, puts families and communities along the Vermont Gas pipeline route at risk from leaks and explosions that could occur as a result of the failure to enforce compliance with standards for safe construction. They are requesting that PHMSA intervene to ensure their safety.
States have the option to assert exclusive jurisdiction over intrastate pipelines and take over intrastate pipeline safety regulation as long as they uphold at least the same standards that the federal government would require. But, the group says, that is clearly not happening in Vermont.
The group points out that even when DPS identifies serious problems, they do not act in a timely manner. For example, the current allegations against VGS include very serious safety and construction violations. Those problems appear in inspector reports dating all the way back to June 7th 2016. The NOPV was not filed until August 8th. Then DPS provided VGS with, so far, three extensions on their timeline for response. The third extension allows VGS until November 9th to respond, with, in total 5 months of ongoing construction. (a preliminary safety response from VGS was filed on September 14, 2016, and the company and the state claim to be “collaborating” to resolve the allegations.[ii] Rather than take immediate steps to notify the public of potential immediate dangers, and halt construction until apparent failures of compliance were addressed, DPS has instead allowed construction to continue with no assurance whatsoever that these very serious violations have ever been addressed, or that standards for safe construction more generally have been met.
The allegations against VGS relate to failure to take mandatory steps to ensure electrical safety during construction under high voltage transmission wires. Construction in proximity to high voltage transmission wires can cause induced voltage, which may result in serious risk of electrocution on contact with the steel pipes. This puts workers as well as property owners or anyone who happens to come in contact with pipeline as it is “strung out”, at risk. Induced voltage is also a well-known risk factor for pipeline leaks and explosions resulting from damage that causes corrosion over time.
VGS is charged with failure to have comprehensive written specifications as required by both the Certificate of Public Good, and Federal regulations, and also failure to provide a mandatory onsite “responsible person” with technical expertise to oversee construction in proximity to transmission wires.
This is not the first time VT DPS has allowed non-compliant construction to continue. In 2015, VT DPS allowed Vermont Gas to continue construction of the first segment of the Addison Natural Gas Project, from Colchester to Williston, without approved welding or quality assurance plans in place. According to VT DPS construction inspector reports, already troubled horizontal directional drilling continued without those plans in place for weeks on end.
Federal regulations clearly state that pipelines that are not built in accordance with federal minimum standards cannot be operated. This, the group says, means that DPS has allowed the first 11 miles to go into service even though a portion of it was clearly built without necessary approved plans and specifications. “We’re calling on all parties involved to cease the operation and recovery of costs for the first 11 miles of the ANGP. VGS’s safety lapses during construction and the decision to allow operation of a potentially unsafe pipeline segment means that ratepayers are paying for substandard construction that puts the public in danger. This is patently wrong” says Geoffrey Gardiner, of the Upper Valley Affinity Group.
The Addison Natural Gas Project was approved on the grounds that it would exceed federal and industry pipeline safety standards. The group says that VGS’s construction doesn’t even come close. Mary Martin of Rutland Climate Coalition pointed out that: “We have to draw the line when it comes to public safety. Improper welds and corrosion are a leading cause of pipeline leaks and explosions – like the one in San Bruno, California that killed 8 people. In that case, the National Transportation Safety Board referred to the company (PG&E) having “exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight…and regulators that place a blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing, to the detriment of public safety.”[iii]
Cynthia Hendel, from Protect Geprags Park added, “How can anyone living near the pipeline trust that it is safe, when instead of halting construction until plans and specifications have been fully reviewed to comply with federal standards, DPS is allowing construction to continue? DPS knows well the scope of mismanagement that has occurred across this project, including gross mismanagement of costs as well as environmental violations, and now the jeopardizing of our safety with substandard construction, as we are told that construction is ‘going well.’”
Vermont does not have a citizen suit provision to allow people who live, work or travel within the “incineration zone” of the pipeline (the area within one thousand foot radius around the pipeline subject to total destruction in an explosion) to file suit against state agencies for not properly regulating a pipeline for property damage, injuries or fatalities. The group states that the only option to protect citizens from accidents is good regulation during construction and operation of facilities, and that just isn’t happening under DPS jurisdiction. “this is why we are requesting that PHMSA needs to step in immediately, halt construction and review Vermont Department of Public Service’s role.
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