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Eileen Simollardes (at right) from Vermont Gas outlines the pipeline project.  Cornwall select board chairman Bruce Hiland (in blue) looks on at left.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Eileen Simollardes (at right) from Vermont Gas outlines the pipeline project. Cornwall select board chairman Bruce Hiland (in blue) looks on at left. (Photo: Brian Mann)

NY-VT tension shapes Ticonderoga gas pipeline project

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The US and Canada are carrying more and more energy produced in North America on rail tank cars. That's controversial, especially after this summer's disaster in Lac-Megantic.

But there's also a fierce debate underway over construction of new pipelines to carry the surge of domestic natural gas and oil. Much of the controversy has focused on the Keystone XL project in the Midwest. But we have our own pipeline battle shaping up here in the North Country.

A company in Vermont hopes to build a new line that would feed natural gas from Vermont underneath Lake Champlain to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga. Some environmental activists and local government leaders in Vermont are promising to block the project unless major changes are made.

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At first blush, the Cornwall town hall in Addison County Vermont doesn’t look like the kind of place where U.S. energy policy would be hashed out. 

But sitting at folding tables, surrounded by the community’s small lending library, members of the local select board are grilling staff members from a company called Vermont Gas.

At issue is the company's plan to route a natural gas pipeline through this tiny farming community a few miles outside Middlebury.

"There are six landowners that you'll be notifying?" asks select board chairman Bruce Hiland.  "How many of those have granted you access?"

"One that I know of and three that I know for sure didn't," said Vermont Gas spokeswoman Eileen Simollardes

There’s a lot at stake here.  Vermont Gas hopes to partner with International Paper, which has agreed to spend at east seventy million dollars to help build this pipeline. 

IP spokeswoman Donna Wadsworth says the project would make their plant in Ticonderoga more efficient, saving the company millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

"We look at natural gas as being a cleaner energy, an opportunity to reduce our greenhouse gases.  So for us it's a game-changing project," she said.

But many locals here hate this project.  Vermont Gas wants to build part of its line across a 320-acre farm owned by Mary Martin.

"This will be fracked gas coming through.  The people in Alberta and the land in Alberta has been poisoned," she said.

Part of the opposition here is about the environment, about opposition to hydro-fracking and growing concerns about the way Canada’s energy industry operates.

But a big part of the local beef in Cornwall is also about money. 

People here  say they just don’t see how their local economy benefits much from a pipeline that primarily serves a company across the lake in New York.

Ben Marks, a Cornwall attorney representing the town in its dealings with Vermont Gas, estimated that increased property tax revenue from the project would only produce about $30 thousand a year.

"I don't think $30,000 is going to change anybody's tax picture in a way that's going to make sense."

Cornwall select board chairman Bruce Hiland said this week that if the pipeline is built he wants Vermont Gas and IP to cut his community in on more of the economic benefits.

He said the two firms should be "making a good-faith up-front contribution of what I guess to be a serious six-figure amount to compensate Cornwall for the initial disturbance."

Hiland also wants to "share the dollar benefits to both corporations" as long as gas is flowing through his community.

But Hiland also expressed skepticism that Vermont Gas would be open to negotiations on those lines and he complained about what he described as "astonishing disrespect that Vermont Gas has shown for the community."

The town of Cornwall sent a letter earlier this month to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, asking him to intervene to bock the project.

Vermont Gas spokeswoman Eileen Simollardes said this week that she hopes some of this tension can be defused.

"I'm well aware that Cornwall does not support this project.  That said, we are planning on filing it and I would like to have a dialogue around Cornwall's concerns and issues," she said.

But if opposition continues in Cornwall from the town and local property owners, Simollardes says the company does have the option of using the courts to force the pipeline through, gaining access to town road rights-of-way, and private land.

"That's probably the elephant in the room," she acknowledged, pointing out that her firm does have "the right of eminent domain or condemnation."

Simollardes says Vermont Gas hopes to avoid that kind of confrontation. 

The company has already rerouted the proposed pipeline to better reflect Cornwall’s local town plan and will also use subsurface drilling to avoid sensitive wetlands. 

Donna Wadsworth, at International Paper, also argues that small towns in Vermont will benefit if her company’s mill in Ticonderoga stays strong.

The New York mill is one of the biggest companies in the Champlain Valley, with six hundred employees and another 650 loggers and truckers working on contract.   

"Wood purchases in Vermont are upwards to $3 million a year.  There are a number of Vermont loggers, truckers and private landowners who directly earn their living providing wood and fiber to the mill.  [IP] employees who live in Vermont, the payroll and benefit for those employees is about $1.2 million going into Vermont," she said.

The full-blown regulatory process for this stretch of gas pipeline is expected to get underway in January and Vermont Gas and IP hope to have full approvals in place by the end of 2014. 

The two companies hope to begin actual natural gas service in 2015.  But if this week’s meeting was any sign, the next few months could be contentious. 

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