Vermont Gas's contentious natural-gas pipeline extension to connect service areas in Chittenden and Franklin counties is temporarily on hold. The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) on July 25 ordered the utility to halt construction until it filed a soil management plan.

Opponents allege construction in VELCO's transmission-line corridor could possibly release hazardous chemicals present in the soil. Pentachlorophenol (PCP), a wood preservative used to treat utility poles, has been detected near the pipeline route in a Monkton resident's well, according to Vermont Public Radio.

The utility announced in late July that it is drafting a soil management plan with the state Agency of Natural Resources.

Earlier, the utility had defended its announced 40% hike, to $121.6 million from $86.6 million, in estimated construction costs for its western Vermont pipeline expansion, despite opposition by ratepayers and environmentalists.

The Boston non-profit Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) filed a petition on July 14 to request the PSB to review the project, due to soaring construction costs.

“Construction should be halted unless and until regulators approve the changed project,” says Beth Levine, CLF senior attorney. “We expect the board to act quickly, since a petition was signed by 500 ratepayers.”

On July 22, some 50 pipeline opponents held a “fish-in” outside PSB offices in Montpelier to protest alleged bait-and-switch tactics by Vermont Gas.

In its July 2 cost-increase filing with regulators, Burlington, Vt.-based Vermont Gas says, “Strong demand for natural gas is driving a nationwide surge in the cost of construction, labor and materials, local engineering and route changes.”

Steve Wark, Vermont Gas spokesman, says, “Labor, materials, land values, use of horizontal directional drilling and legal costs are the major drivers" for the cost increases.

Construction costs, totaling $19 million, are the highest cost, driven by market forces that led to a higher-than-expected bid from seven qualified contractors, he says. Walk says the utility is still working out its final construction agreement.

Ken Pidgeon, president of Engineers Construction Inc., Williston, which Vermont Gas hired for the horizontal directional drilling portion of phase one of its pipeline extension, says his company expects to begin work the first week of August and to complete the project within a year. CHA, Albany, N.Y., provided engineering design for the pipeline.

The project has received the last two permits for phase one, which will extend 41 miles from Colchester to Middlebury, and has begun planning for phase two, taking the route another 19 miles under Lake Champlain to the International Paper Mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y. Phase three would bring the pipeline to Rutland.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) says there is a “critical” need for the pipeline project and that natural gas should be used as a bridge to wean the nation off other fossil fuels.