by Rachel Smolker
Back in February of 2016, Vermont Gas Systems’ fracked gas pipeline construction was passing through the towns of Williston and St. George and approaching the border of Hinesburg. Even as equipment was parked at the edge of town, it was not clear that there was any plan or agreement between Hinesburg and Vermont Gas. From everything we could discern, there had been essentially no communication between the town and the gas company for nearly a year as the “certificate of public good” — an essential state-level permission for the entire project — had been undergoing reconsideration in the face of massive cost overruns. Curious minds were wondering “What’s the plan?” A “pre-hearing conference” was scheduled at the Public Service Board. Lo and behold, the Hinesburg attorney showed up at that meeting with a signed agreement in hand. Amidst a strong police presence (due to disruptive protests at prior hearings in which VGS aimed to lay claim to the properties of people via “eminent domain”), Vermont Gas lawyers and representatives shook hands and smiled. The sense in the room was one of slightly “too sweet,” awkward congeniality. The company had waited until the very last minute to finalize their agreement with the town, almost as if they had forgotten it was necessary. In their eagerness, Vermont Gas representatives suggested to the hearing officer that given the good feelings in the room, it would be unnecessary to hold further hearings. But the hearing officer thought it best to follow protocol and procedures and moved to schedule further hearings, albeit in very short order.
That the town had any agreement whatsoever about the pipeline came as a shock to some town residents, who quickly rallied to attend the upcoming selectboard meeting and demand an explanation. To our shocked amazement, some selectboard members indicated that they were not even aware that there was a signed agreement! In a mad dash to slow things down and buy time to figure out what was going on, residents gathered and called on the wisdom and advice of activists around the state who had been fighting the pipeline for three years. We imagined, at the time, that we might be able to buy a couple of weeks’ time. That was in February 2016. Now it is one year later and there is still no pipeline through Geprags Park.
The agreement that the town had made with Vermont Gas was declared invalid. The route of the pipeline through Hinesburg included passing through the middle of Geprags Park, a public park deeded to the town by Dora Geprags, with a covenant in the deed that it be maintained only for recreational or educational purposes or a school. Citizens of Hinesburg hired a lawyer and intervened in the Public Service Board proceedings, challenging the legal basis for granting a pipeline easement through a public park. Months later, when the PSB hearings were scheduled, the board tried to close the hearings to the public, which was a highly contentious and widely publicized anti-democratic move that was successfully challenged in federal court. Still, the PSB ultimately ruled to allow the pipeline easement through Geprags Park, as it had previously ruled in favor of the project at every turn.
Citizens have appealed that decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, maintaining that the Public Service Board, under settled Vermont law, does not have the authority to claim an easement through land already in public use.
For residents of Hinesburg and our allies, the past 12 months have been a wild ride. We have had to raise a great deal of money to pay lawyers, learn to navigate the labyrinthine processes of the Public Service Board, work hard to educate and engage others in our community, pour over endless reams of difficult-to-access, poorly labeled drafts of filings and testimony, and educate ourselves about such matters as pipeline construction safety standards. Fortunately we have some very educated and capable people in our group, who also have the ability to dedicate time to this struggle, a luxury that many communities facing similar dirty energy projects lack.
Our Supreme Court appeal remains pending, however, the court has agreed to allow VGS to proceed with construction even before the case is heard. VGS has taken out a $1 million bond to protect against the possibility that they will lose the case and have to compensate the town. This seems outrageous, as no amount of money can provide adequate compensation for the destruction of our park, much less the damage to our climate from transporting and using fracked gas!
Meanwhile, last August, Vermont Gas was served with a “notice of probable violation” for failing to comply with minimum federal standards for safe construction. Rather than respond immediately to demonstrate that the problems were resolved, VGS continued construction through November without responding. We filed a request with the federal agency, Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration, requesting that they intervene and oversee the project since the Department of Public Service was failing to enforce federal standards. In fact, our research has turned up a variety of safe construction violations going back to 2014! On Jan. 12, the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration notified us that they will be opening an investigation. We feel that all further construction should be halted until that investigation is completed and the results made public.
Climate scientists have long recognized carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane as potent contributors to global warming. Natural gas consists primarily of methane, and study after study has shown that leaking pipelines and fracking wells in North America are one source of the current, alarming spike in atmospheric methane. The fracking boom was rationalized on the basis that natural gas was a “bridge fuel” with “lower CO2 emissions,” rhetoric that continues today even as it flies in the face of mountains of scientific evidence.
Halting the wholesale destruction of the livability of our planet and preventing our children’s futures from being sold out to the insatiable greed of fossil fuel companies is our challenge. These are the stakes in the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Resistance to pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure is raging in battles across the country and indeed around the world. Most notable is the resistance underway against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux, joined by hundreds of other Native American tribes and many thousands of allies. There, militarized police have been called in to violently ‘protect’ the interests of the company (Energy East/Enbridge), and they have not hesitated to seriously injure peaceful “water protectors” who are standing up for their rights, for their rivers, for their children and for our planet. Vermont is far from North Dakota, and our largely white European population is unfamiliar with the level of oppression that Native Americans have contended with for centuries. But, as one activist stated, we are all bound by a common thread; the blood that flows in our veins is not so different. Ultimately we are all mostly water.
Hinesburg’s struggle against the pipeline is one small piece in the larger fabric of resistance that is underway. Right now, we are celebrating each day that Geprags Park remains unscathed as a victory. Each time we proclaim our victory, we acknowledge it, and then send it upstream, downstream, and across the land in hopes that it will sow seeds all along the way.
To get involved or for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Montpelier: Central Vermont Climate Action: email@example.com or facebook.com/centralvtclimateaction/
Rachel Smolker has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and is a writer and activist on energy and climate justice issues. She lives in Hinesburg, VT.