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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Town begins preparing for gas-plant vote

Vernon officials walk a tightrope between encouraging a plant that could provide jobs and tacitly supporting a controversial pipeline for fracked natural gas

VERNON—Officials are shooting for a Town Meeting Day referendum on the possibility of building a 600-megawatt, gas-fired power plant somewhere near the Vermont Yankee site.

If a March 1 vote is approved by the Selectboard, the intervening three months will give the Planning Commission more time to address myriad questions and concerns about such a facility.

Officials also are asking the project’s lead advocate, Winhall resident Don Campbell, to narrow in on a site for the plant by early 2016.

At a planning commission meeting Nov. 18, Campbell said he was “optimistic” that he could do so. He also backed the commission’s proposed time frame for a town vote, but he warned officials that waiting any longer than that could prove detrimental to the project.

“The investor group that I’ve spoken to thinks that this is the right thing and Vermont is the right place. But there’s the potential that other people could overtake us,” Campbell said.

“Sooner is better than later in terms of a referendum from a competitive perspective,” he added. “But right now, I think that you can be very confident that you have the investor and the technical support that you’ll need.”

With Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. having shut down the nuclear plant’s reactor at the end of 2014, town officials have been debating whether the area could host another power-producing facility.

Details emerge slowly

The Planning Commission has been meeting with Campbell and his business partner, Brattleboro resident Hervey Scudder, for more than a year.

The idea is to build a plant that would tie into the proposed Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct pipeline project.

As it is currently designed, the pipeline — which has not received federal approval — would bring natural gas from the shale fields of Pennsylvania into the New England market via a route passing through northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

At a Nov. 10 public forum at Vernon Elementary School, planning commission members revealed some details of the proposal: They envision a 600 megawatt, $750 million, 20-acre power plant fed by a 7-mile spur from the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

The facility will not be located inside Vermont Yankee’s protected area, but it would be somewhere near the site’s extensive electrical infrastructure.

Many details remain unclear, including the sites being considered for the development. At their Nov. 18 meeting, several planning commission members said residents deserve to know soon what those sites are.

Noting preliminary plans for a second public forum on the gas plant in early 2016, commission Chairman Bob Spencer said he believes that “the more site-specific we can be, the more productive our forum will be.”

Commission member Martin Langeveld added that it is important “to really be able to say, ‘We are talking about a gas plant on this specific piece of land here.’

“If I wasn’t on this board ... and I was asked a question about, ’Would you like a gas plant to be built somewhere,’ very nebulously, I wouldn’t know how to vote,” Langeveld said. “I think it just needs to be as specific a proposal as possible.”

The vote Langeveld referred to will be the next big step in the process. While plant permitting will be up to state and federal officials, Campbell also has said it is important to have clear support from the town before proceeding with the project.

Planning commission members support the idea of a referendum to be held on Town Meeting Day — which is scheduled for March 1 next year — and they agreed to propose such a vote to the Selectboard.

Officials did not discuss how a ballot question would be worded, but commission member Patty O’Donnell declared that, “if we have a referendum out there, we don’t want it biased in one direction or the other.”

The fracking dilemma

In trying to maintain that official position of neutrality, however, town officials are walking a tightrope.

Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal has spurred much controversy in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and the Nov. 10 forum showed that many are concerned about placing a gas plant in town.

At their Nov. 18 meeting, planning commission members painstakingly went over those questions and concerns and grouped them into broader categories. The general topics include pipeline location and size; tax implications; plant siting; safety (including emergency-response capabilities); health effects and environmental impacts; employment, both short- and long-term; the regulatory process; government oversight; and decommissioning.

One of the most hot-button issues may be the controversial gas-extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Both New York and Vermont have banned the practice.

At this point, the Planning Commission is not taking a position on the issue, reasoning that Kinder Morgan’s pipeline will use fracked gas regardless of whether a plant is built here. The same sentiment apparently goes for other Kinder Morgan concerns expressed by those outside the town.

“I don’t see our role as explaining Kinder Morgan and how they operate as a corporation,” commission Vice Chairwoman Janet Rasmussen said.

O’Donnell compared the gas-plant proposal to Vermont Yankee: Though many in the region had actively opposed the nuclear plant’s continued operation, Vernon had a mostly cordial relationship with Entergy.

“The people in our community are going to want to know about our community,” O’Donnell said. “Certainly, we can acknowledge the fact that our neighbors are against the gas plant. But some of those were the same neighbors that were against the nuclear-power plant. So that’s the world we’ve lived in for 45 years, and we’re used to that.”

Nevertheless, there are no shortage of gas-plant questions — including health and safety concerns raised by Vernon residents — that planning commission members must tackle in advance of the next public forum and the referendum. O’Donnell said it might be necessary to recruit independent experts to weigh in on some aspects of the proposal.

“I do think that some of these issues, we’re going to have to find resources outside of the people who are against the plant and the people who want to build the plant,” O’Donnell said.

“I want to come from science,” she added. “I want to know that we’re getting the facts on these issues.”

Spencer said that, ultimately, there are some technical aspects of the project that will be best weighed by governmental regulators during plant permitting.

“There’s a whole process that’s going to address these things,” Spencer said. “Whether people trust regulatory processes, that’s a whole other question.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #333 (Wednesday, November 25, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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