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Tuesday September 19, 2006 Edition
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Velco Describes Environmental Efforts At Otter Valley Union High School Hearing

Tuesday September 19, 2006

By Ed Barna

    No one explained why the Agency of Natural Resource would hold a VELCO wetlands permit alternation hearing in Brandon on Sept. 11, when most of the affected wetlands were in Addison County, and none of the 10 or so people on hand asked.

Perhaps it had to do with the Northwest Reliability Project's steady march southward. As of last Thursday, 3Phase's heavy equipment had congregated on the flats just north of the Leicester River, close to the Leicester-Salisbury border.

Sandy Rowe, a member of VELCO's environmental team, occupied most of the time giving a Powerpoint presentation on the project's working methods, as a way of reassuring people that they were truly concerned about the environment. Reporting on the line's progress so far, she said about 95 percent of the right-of-way cutting was complete, and all the work should be done by December.

Asked afterward why VELCO had changed contractors midway through this year's work, Rowe said it was to make sure the construction company had the resources to get the job done in timely fashion, not because of any malfeasance on the part of the previous company.

People driving by the Salisbury flats Thursday afternoon may have seen a truck piled high with something that looked like giant pallets--the warehouse kind, not the artistic kind. Those who were at Otter Valley  would have known they were construction mats put down to create a temporary access road without smothering plants in gravel or churning them to mud.

In extremely wet circumstances, which were sometimes unavoidable because the new line was following the old right-of-way, the company hired a  helicopter, Rowe said. (This may have been the helicopter glimpsed heading north from Salisbury on Thursday.)

Capable of hovering like a hummingbird, the chopper has helped frame the new pylons as well as putting the poles for them into place, Rowe illustrated with slides. In some cases, she said, the ground was so soggy that horizontal poles needed to be placed underground (so-called “bog shoes”) for additional stability, as well as using guy wires.

Were these stabilizers wooden? Yes. Was a wood preservative used? Yes. Which? Not creosote, not the one with arsenic in it, but rather pentachlorphenol, which has been in commercial use for 60 years, she said.

This brought on one of the evening's clashes. Sylvia Knight of Charlotte, one of VELCO's strongest and best-informed critics, had come, and she said the chemical had environmental effects so strong that its use ought be classified as a permanent wetland impact.

Searching EPA and National Library of Medicine PubMed information turned up a study of workers who had been exposed to pentachlorphenol. It was described as “a pesticide that was once widely used for wood preservation. Commercial PCP contained impurities including higher chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs) and chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs).”

The authors concluded that “occupational exposure to PCP is associated with chloracne and biochemical abnormalities which may persist years after exposure.” Other information said the substance had been banned for herbicide use in 1987, had a safe drinking water level of zero, and could not be sold over-the-counter.

This did not necessarily add up to severe environmental damage. Another part of the governmental information said that when the chemical goes from wood to water, it “will adsorb to sediment or be degraded by sunlight,” so “its accumulation in fish will be moderate” (or nonexistent in bogs).

Knight said that in testimony in July of 2004, they had said steel poles would be used for the bog shoes, to avoid leaching into wetlands.

Knight had a page-long list of critiques, some of which were seconded  at the hearing by Vermonters for a Clean Environment head Annette Smith, who had come up from Danby. Some of them were:--The company had not planned its project to avoid wetland, contrary to a 2004 Agency of Natural Resources directive.--Clearing trees on streambanks may have been a violation of two of the permits.--The use of herbicides will cause long-term wetlands impacts. Rowe answered this by saying the chemicals would be used to eradicate high-growing plants, then when low-growing species had taken over, such spraying would no longer be necessary.

Knight said (back by Smith) that ANR should insist that VELCO pay for independent experts “to assist in describing impacts on individual wetlands, and incorporating enforceable conditions in the permit. Yes, such costs are passed on to ratepayers, but I am willing to pay for protection of our natural resources, not for preventable damage to the wetlands that protect our water and provide habitat for wildlife, making Vermont the special place that many of us love.”

Rowe said, “We've taken every effort to minimize impact.”

Written testimony will not be possible, because the comment period closed the day after the hearing. In any case, the deviations from the original wetland permit would only involve 4,701 square feet, and as Rowe said, “We're going to be done with the line by December.”   


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