Three environmental activists were arrested and released Monday morning, following demonstrations in downtown Montpelier, Vermont.
The group Rising Tide Vermont organized protests which began Saturday morning and stretched into early Monday. The demonstrations were aimed at drawing attention to what the group sees as an environmental mistake for state regulators to allow Vermont Gas to continue an expansion project building out a natural gas pipeline to Addison County.
"What motivates me is trying to protect the planet," said protestor Crystal Zevon, 66, of West Barnet. "I have grandchildren, and I want there to be something for them."
Zevon was one of the three activists police arrested. They also arrested Johann Kulsic, 20, of Barre, and David Przepioski, 56, of Burlington. All were cited to appear in court on December 3 to face disorderly conduct charges, according to the Montpelier Police Department.
Kulsic chained himself to the rear door of the Vermont Public Service Department building on State Street, and needed be cut free with bolt cutters, police said. Zevon and Przepioski blocked access to a front stairway inside the building, police added.
The trio and more than two dozen fellow protesters were outside the branch of state government that represents the public's interest in utility issues. They alleged the Department of Public Service is not doing enough to speak up for ratepayers affected by the expansion of the Vermont Gas natural gas pipeline.
Construction is now underway on a $154-million build-out which Vermont Gas insists will enable it to deliver a cleaner and more affordable heating option to customers in Addison County.
Recently, the utility and the Department of Public Service agreed Vermont Gas will cap the cost it will recover from ratepayers at $134-million. The protestors called that agreement a “backroom deal,” and claimed it is evidence that the Department of Public Service is disinterested in hearing from dissenting voices on the pipeline project.
Vermont Gas has said in the past that many of its potential customers in Addison County have been clamoring for the addition of natural gas service to the Middlebury area.
"The Department of Public Service certainly continues to believe this project is in the best interest of Vermonters," said Jon Copans, a deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service. "And in the best interest of those families of Addison County who will have another choice to make about how they heat their homes."
Copans also expressed disappointment in the tactics demonstrators used Monday in voicing their opposition to the pipeline.
"It's everyone's right to protest, we certainly respect that right, but I think targeting staff at the department is unfortunate," Copans told necn. "There were folks in the building when the door was chained who felt a little unsafe about that. Walking through a gauntlet and being yelled at, yeah, that had folks feeling targeted."
Vermont's Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial regulatory body, is now weighing whether to maintain its approval for the pipeline expansion or to reopen debate about its merits or possible adjustments that need to be made. The Public Service Board is still taking comments about the pipeline project's certificate of public good.
Monday, the demonstrators called for a total shutdown of the project.
For much of the weekend, the environmental activists blockaded the area of State Street between the Department of Public Service and the Vermont Statehouse, even preventing traffic flow.
Many drivers were frustrated at the inconvenience, said Stephen Morse, who told necn he had to find a detour Sunday morning on his way to church.
"It's gone too far," he said of the protests. "I don't understand why our police department didn't do something about them sooner; it seems we should be able to drive on our streets."
Chief Tony Facos of the Montpelier Police Department said he believes the impacts over the weekend were minimal.
Facos said he had good communication with the protestors, and his department decided to allow the demonstrations and camping out overnight in the street, as long as the group promised to move along by pre-dawn hours Monday morning; which it did.
"We felt it was a reasonable action to take on our part," Facos explained. "To also have some sort of idea on what to expect, and not just have an impromptu protest ignite someplace else where we didn't have resources in place."
Vermont Gas spokeswoman Beth Parent issued the following statement Monday regarding the weekend-long demonstrations:
“This project, at its core, is about bringing choice and opportunity to homes and businesses in Addison County. Natural gas continues to be the cleaner and more affordable option, when compared to heating oil and propane. We are making great progress and are in the process of wrapping up a successful construction season. We are so appreciative of all of the landowners that we have been able to reach agreements with and are committed to continuing negotiations with the few who are remaining. This project continues to remain on time and on budget and we are committed to keeping it on track.”