State's role questioned in Vermont Gas cost hike

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 12, 2014 at 3:10 pm •  Published: August 12, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The state agency responsible for representing utility ratepayers is being criticized by consumer and environmental groups after acknowledging it knew of a big cost increase on a natural gas pipeline project four months before it was made public.

Deep in a legal brief by the Public Service Department requesting a $35,000 fine against Vermont Gas Systems for being slow to report the revised project budget, the department said it knew a big cost increase was coming as early as March. But it didn't make that public before the company announced it in July.

The company told the Public Service Board on July 2 that the cost of phase 1 of its project — extending its system from Chittenden County south to Middlebury — had grown by 40 percent, to more than $121 million.

In later phases, the company wants to extend its system west from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, New York, and south to Rutland.

Both department Commissioner Christopher Recchia and Sandra Levine, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, said in interviews it was the company's responsibility to tell the Public Service Board sooner.

But Levine and Philene Taormina, director of advocacy with AARP, said the department should have notified other parties appearing before the Public Service Board in the Vermont Gas case of what it knew, and should have notified the broader public.

"They have an obligation to protect ratepayers, and they're not letting customers know about significant cost increases," Levine said.

And Taormina argued that the department had not taken an aggressive enough stance in defending consumers' interest and is too strong a project supporter to provide it the proper scrutiny.

The department provided voluminous documents last week in response to a public records request by AARP, and "from March to July, the department provided no documentation that they had asked any follow-up questions as to the justification for the cost overrun," Taormina said.

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