The Public Service Board held a much-anticipated hearing Thursday on a Vermont Gas Systems effort to build a pipeline through a wetland area in Geprags Park in Hinesburg.
In an unusual move, the board had closed the hearing to the public, citing disruptions in the past by pipeline opponents. But this week a federal judge ordered the board to allow the public to attend.
Updated 8/4/2016 at 5:30 p.m.
At Thursday's hearing Vermont Gas Systems and pipeline opponents made their case to the Public Service Board.
Both sides made at times heated and arcane legal arguments, but the central issue is whether the state can grant eminent domain to allow the gas company to build the pipeline through Geprags Park in Hinesburg.
This roughly 2,000-foot stretch, which would pass under a wetland in the park, is the final link that needs construction approval in the 41-mile long pipeline.
Before Thursday's hearings began, more than 25 pipeline protestors had already gathered outside the nondescript outbuilding that served as the venue for the proceedings.
While some sang, others staged a die-in, their faces painted a pall-ish white, they lay motionless on the ground in mock graves, holding signs blaming climate change and greed for their demise.
Jane Palmer of Monkton was one of those protestors. She has been fighting Vermont Gas since around 2013, including that part of the pipeline slated to run through the middle of her farm. (The company eventually changed the route of the pipeline to go around her property.)
She said Wednesday's hearing was critical.
"This is the last piece of the puzzle. Vermont Gas has managed to squeeze every other land owner out of the way," Palmer said, "by putting pressure on in more ways than one."
Palmer said the hearing is key because its centers on whether the PSB can use eminent domain to allow the pipeline to run through Geprags Park.
"The Geprags Park is a public piece, so it is not just one person and I think its significant because a community has gathered to resist," said Palmer.
The hearing was ostensibly open to the public — this after an order by a federal judge overturned the Public Service Board's move to close it to the public to limit disruptions.
Yet only a few members of the public could fit into the tiny room, and they were outnumbered by the media.
For most of the morning, opposition lawyer James Dumont cross-examined Vermont Gas representatives, suggesting that they did not properly analyze other pipeline routes around the park.
Dumont walked the board through pages and pages of prior testimony, aimed at setting up his major argument:
"The [Vermont Supreme Court] and other states have said that once land dedicated to public use — a utility cannot use eminent domain to take rights away from the park or the public," said Dumont, who represents nine Hinesburg citizens opposed to the pipeline running through the park.
"In response to our argument, Vermont Gas asked the board to kick us out of the case. The town has settled, so it is not going to make an argument. If Vermont Gas had succeeded there would be nobody left to defend the park," Dumont said.
Vermont Gas representatives responded by pointing out that according to an agreement it reached with the town of Hinesburg last week, the company will drill under the park using a practice called horizontal directional drilling or HDD.
Unlike digging open trenches to bury the pipeline, the company argued that drilling at 30 to 50 feet below ground would not disrupt the wetlands or enjoyment of the park.
Vermont Gas vice president Eileen Simollardes testified that the underground drilling would not require that the company to clearcut a corridor through the park.
"We can be very specific here, there is not a 20-foot [mowing] corridor with the HDD," Simollardes explained.
Vermont Gas representatives said the underground drilling method could cost $1 million to $2 million, significantly more than the open trench method.
There was much heated back and forth between the parties over how much disruption there would be for construction, and for future maintenance and repairs in the park.
Toward the end of the roughly six-hour meeting, Vermont Gas asked the board to make it's decision in a speedy manner: They say there's a risk the pipeline won't be finished this year if the Board doesn't give a decision by mid-September.
Simollardes said at the hearing that if the pipeline cannot be completed this year, the cost of the pipeline would rise again.
Attorneys for Vermont Gas and company representatives declines to comment for this story.
Watch the proceedings here, courtesy of ORCA Media: