Hundreds protest pipeline in Montpelier
Zach Despart, Free Press Staff Writer 5:15 p.m. EDT October 24, 2015
MONTPELIER – Hundreds of people flocked to Montpelier Saturday morning to protest a controversial natural gas pipeline in Chittenden and Addison counties.
Demonstrators marched through downtown and occupied the block of State Street in front of the Statehouse, where the group held a rally. The demonstration was organized by Rising Tide Vermont, a group of climate activists who have rallied against the Vermont Gas Systems Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project since the pipeline was proposed three years ago.
“I am here to demand they shut it down,” said Jane Palmer, who with her husband has sparred with Vermont Gas officials who wanted to run the pipeline though their Monkton farm.
The pipeline, if completed, would run from Colchester to Rutland. Only Phase 1 of the project, a 41-mile section from Colchester to Middlebury, has been approved. Crews broke ground in June 2014 and have completed less than half of that route.
After assembling on the Statehouse lawn, demonstrators began their parade around 11:40 a.m. Carrying homemade signs, they chanted slogans like “Clean water, fresh air, no more fracking anywhere” and “The people, the planet and peace over profit.” Curious Montpelier residents watched from coffee shops and sidewalks.
After marching down Elm and Langdon streets, the group returned to the front of the capitol. Several men placed a 20-foot-high mock gas derrick in the center of the street. Henry Harris of Plainfield climbed to the top of the makeshift structure and flew a Canadian flag from the top. Vermont Gas is a subsidiary of Quebec company Gaz Métro.
As the cold but sunny morning turned to afternoon, most of the marchers stayed to listen to several speakers. With help from a bullhorn, the speakers called for a greater public role in utility regulation and energy decisions.
“We need to have a say in where our energy comes from,” said Vermont Gas customer Senowa Mize-Fox. “It’s amazing to see how many people are standing here today for that fight.”
Mary Martin of Cornwall, whose land would have been traversed by the second phase of the pipeline had Vermont Gas not canceled that portion of the project, said she opposes the expansion of fossil fuel use.
“It’s outdated before it even gets into the ground,” Martin said of the pipeline. “There are better and safer alternatives.”
Many in the crowd booed when Charlie Meguso of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe mentioned eminent domain, a process through which the government seizes private land for public use. Meguso opposes Vermont Gas’ decision this week to file eminent domain proceedings against 9 landowners along the Phase 1 route.
“I though that was for emergencies only,” Meguso said of eminent domain. “How does that benefit the public?”
Since the state Public Service Board approved Phase 1 in December 2013 with a price tag of $87 million, the cost of the project has nearly doubled. A cost hike in July 2014 brought the project to $122 million. Another last December pegged the cost at $154 million.
The Public Service Board has issued fines to reprimanded Vermont Gas for poor oversight of the project, but have allowed Phase 1 to proceed as scheduled. Opponents charge that the board and the Department of Public Service have failed to effectively regulate Vermont Gas.
Speakers at Saturday’s demonstration urged the Public Service Board to revoke its approval for the project, called a certificate of public good.
“This entire process has been a wake-up call for us,” Palmer said. “We learned how the utility regulatory system is broken and corrupted.”
Protest organizers brought plenty of theatrics, which delighted the crowd. Harris, dressed in a suit and fedora atop the mock derrick, played Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia in a rehearsed sketch. Harris portrayed Recchia as a stooge of Vermont Gas who misrepresents the project’s economic benefit for Vermont.
The Public Service Board in February launched an investigation to determine whether the pipeline remains in the public interest of Vermonters, but has yet to return with a ruling. Vermont Gas plans to complete Phase 1 next fall.
Montpelier police Sgt. Bill Jennings said he had no advance warning protesters would block State Street, and said he was unaware of any permit Rising Tide had secured for the parade. Police guided the group through the streets to prevent accidents with drivers and later cordoned off State Street to allow the protest to continue.
“We just want to make the area safe and allow free speech,” Jennings said.
A handful of protesters remained in the middle of State Street, along with the mock derrick, as of 4 p.m.
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent said Saturday afternoon the pipeline would lower energy bills for Vermonters, and the company vows to work with landowners to avoid eminent domain when possible.
“This project continues to remain on time and on budget and we are committed to keeping it on track,” Parent said.
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