WILLISTON — Vermont Gas Systems on Monday took the next step in moving Phase I of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project forward by signing the first of three major construction contracts for the project.
Engineers Construction Inc. of Williston signed a multimillion-dollar contract to drill at 17 locations along the 41-mile route using what’s called a horizontal drilling method.
“It’s been around for quite some time and ECI has a tremendous amount of expertise,” VGS spokesman Steve Wark said Monday.
Although it’s more time consuming, Wark said horizontal directional drilling as opposed to the open trench method is preferable when drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.
He said ECI will employ horizontal drilling at 17 locations, from Colchester to Middlebury, drilling beneath the surface much like a mole. At the end of the drilling operation, a 12-inch pipe is then pulled through.
“The majority of the route is going to be constructed using cross-country, open cut technique, sometimes called trenching,” Wark said. “In those areas that are environmentally or culturally sensitive, such as streams or archaeological sites, that’s where we will employ the use of horizontal directional drilling to go underneath and avoid disturbance.”
He said work on the $86 million Phase I project is expected to begin in June.
When all three phases are complete, the Addison-Rutland Natural Gas Project will serve as many as 16,000 homes and businesses.
VGS has promoted the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas. According to the company, natural gas is 49 percent less expensive than oil and 63 percent less expensive than propane. Converting to natural gas will also cut emissions by 25 percent, the company said.
Critics, however, have urged the state to reject the project as environmentally harmful because of the continued reliance on fossil fuels and in particular natural gas from Alberta extracted using the hydraulic fracking process.
In December, the Public Service Board approved the first phase of the project.
Phase II of the project, which is under review by the PSB, would extend the pipeline west from Middlebury to Cornwall and Shoreham, then across Lake Champlain to serve the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.
The PSB will hold a public hearing on Phase II at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the elementary school in Shoreham.
Phase III would extend the pipeline to Rutland and is contingent on Phase II approval to bring gas to Rutland County 15 years earlier than anticipated.
Sandra Levine of the Conservation Law Foundation suggested VGS was overly optimistic in its construction schedule. “The announcement that this work will begin seems premature,” Levine wrote in an email. “VGS still needs a number of water quality and wetland permits before it can begin construction.”
The horizontal directional drilling method will also be used under Lake Champlain.
Wark said ECI has experience drilling under bodies of water. VGS hired the company to drill under the Winooski, Lamoille and Missisquioi rivers.
ECI has also drilled under Lake Champlain in connection with the Sandbar State Park project. Another project involved drilling under Rouses Point to connect electric and fiber cable.
Wark said ECI was one of at least two bidders on the project.
He declined to disclose the contract price.
With Monday’s announcement, Wark said that leaves two major contracts to be awarded: construction and construction management. He said once fully underway Phase I will employ hundreds of workers.
Engineers Construction is a 49-year-old family-owned business with expertise in civil, site work, concrete, paving, railroad and trenchless pipeline construction.
VGS, a subsidiary of Gaz Metro of Montreal, has almost 50,000 customers in Franklin and Chittenden counties.
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