- A Vermont Public Utilities Commission hearing officer last week directed the state's only natural gas utility to undergo an investigation determining whether a pipeline was constructed properly and whether a licensed engineer approved the plans.
- The order was a win for opponents of the Vermont Gas System pipeline, who say it was constructed "chaotically," does not meet safety standards and poses a danger to nearby residents.
- Vermont Gas officials say they are confident in the 2-year-old, 41-mile pipeline's safety, but the industry is under increased scrutiny following a series of deadly explosions in Massachusetts last year on the Columbia Gas pipeline system.
The Vermont pipeline in question is significantly different from the system in Massachusetts, but one issue ties them together: whether a licensed professional engineer approved the plans.
Massachusetts allows an exemption from requirements that a professional engineer approve public utility work — though the National Transportation Safety Board recommended eliminating the exemption when it investigated the Columbia Gas disaster. While Vermont has no such exemption, the lawyer for opponents of the Vermont Gas line says the utility did not have the proper approval.
"This entire pipeline was built without a licensed, professional engineer signing off on final construction plans," James Dumont, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Utility Dive. "My clients observed some pretty obvious departures from the plans filed with the Vermont PUC."
State regulators have hired RCP Inc., a Houston-based engineering firm, to investigate the pipeline's construction. Following the hearing officer's decision, the firm will now look into whether Vermont Gas had a licensed engineer sign off on the pipeline plans.
"We are confident in the safety of this pipeline," Vermont Gas spokesperson Beth Parent told Utility Dive. The Massachusetts explosion occurred due to an overpressurization while crews were replacing old cast iron pipes, but the Vermont pipeline is just two years old and constructed of newer materials.
However, the utility has been less direct on the question of whether a licensed engineer approved the plans.
"All our plans were prepared with appropriate engagement from licensed, professional engineers, and we’re confident the PUC review will affirm that," Parent told Vermont Public Radio.
Dumont said there are a range of issues that make the new pipeline dangerous, including insufficient soil compaction.
"The whole thing was illegal and dangerous," Dumont said. If the pipeline is shut down, the utility should be required to truck in natural gas for their clients, he added.
Each state has different requirements for gas pipelines — all told, utilities operate more than 2.5 million miles of pipe spanning every state. Officials at the American Gas Association (AGA) said they cannot comment on specific pipes or communities, and do not track state-by-state requirements as to whether or not a licensed professional engineer is required to sign off on public utility work.
"Safety is the top priority for natural gas utilities," AGA spokesman Jake Rubin told Utility Dive.