State regulators have questioned whether the Vermont Gas Systems Inc. pipeline in Addison County should continue to operate if it’s shown that a licensed engineer never approved the pipeline plans.
The news comes after opponents submitted hundreds of pages of records they say document construction flaws.
Vermont Gas finished the 41 mile line into Addison County almost two years ago. Yet questions about its safety have persisted. Opponents have alleged the pipe was not buried deeply enough, and that other construction shortcuts created hazards along the route.
The latest concern was raised after a natural gas accident in Massachusetts killed one person and injured dozens in September. In that case, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that a licensed engineer review the safety of Bay State pipelines.
In Vermont, opponents have also questioned whether a licensed engineer approved the Addison County pipeline construction plans.
The Public Utility Commission now agrees that’s a question worth answering. In an order broadening the investigation, hearing officer Michael Tousley also raised the question of whether Vermont Gas should continue to operate the line.
“Once the investigation report is filed, I will direct the company to address this issue [of the licensed engineer] and the broader issue of whether the pipeline should cease operation,” he wrote.
Rachel Smolker, a Hinesburg resident who opposed the pipeline expansion route through a park in town, was pleased by the commission’s order.
“My concern is not getting vindication,” she said. “My concern is making sure that people who are living with this pipeline 100 feet from their front doors don’t get fried.”
Smolker said the order should not be a surprise after opponents filed troves of documents – including the company’s own records – detailing construction problems.
“It’s to a point now where it would be pretty absurd for them to just to continue to ignore what’s going on with the construction of this pipeline,” she said.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent says the company welcomes the expanded investigation.
“This project was constructed safely and we look forward to demonstrating that the pipeline is safe, and that we’re doing a good job serving our customers,” she said.
And the question whether a licensed professional engineer signed off on the project?
“All our plans were prepared with appropriate engagement from licensed professional engineers, and we’re confident the PUC review will affirm that,” she said.
The commission’s order did not lay out a timetable for the investigation. Just this week, the commission contracted with a Texas consulting engineering firm to serve as the independent investigator for the Addison project.