• ECHO Action Editor

PUC approves utility's request for gas line under Ashuelot River

"A state regulator on Friday granted Liberty Utilities permission to run a gas line under the Ashuelot River in Keene, despite a city councilor’s opposition to it.

The utility company says the river crossing would add desired redundancy to its propane/air distribution system. Currently, 100 or so Keene customers west of the Ashuelot River depend on a single crossing of the river — a pipe under the West Street bridge.

A Liberty spokesman said the company plans to complete the project this spring.

Terry M. Clark, a Keene city councilor representing Ward 3, had opposed the new pipeline. He argued the project is unnecessary and adds to fossil-fuel infrastructure at a time when society should be moving away from it.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they’d want to go in this direction, really,” he said Monday, “at this time when we need to have utilities — we need their cooperation in investing in renewable sources.”

Clark, as a private citizen, intervened in the regulatory proceeding before the N.H. Public Utilities Commission. An intervenor can conduct discovery, question witnesses and make arguments.

Clark said he has not decided whether to appeal the decision.

In its order approving the pipeline, the Public Utilities Commission required Liberty to have a monitor on site during construction. That person’s sole responsibility would be to watch the river for signs of a “frac-out” — in which the clay-based drilling fluid seeps out due to high pressure.

The monitor could be an employee of Liberty or a contractor, but would have the authority to halt construction, the commissioners ruled.

Barbara Skuly of Swanzey, who chairs the Ashuelot River Local Advisory Committee, had asked commissioners to ensure that the drilling would be monitored. The commission’s safety staff had also recommended such a step.

“We asked for a monitor, so basically they are doing what we had asked for,” Skuly said Monday.

Liberty Utilities serves about 1,200 customers in Keene with a propane/air system, which it hopes to convert to natural gas in the coming years. The new pipeline under the Ashuelot would form part of the existing propane/air system, and would later be used for natural gas, Andrew Mills, a planning engineer with Liberty, said at a Nov. 26 hearing before the commission in Concord.

“It is good engineering practice to have multiple feeds to serve any number of customers downstream,” so an interruption in one feed doesn’t cut off service, he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

In his testimony, Mills outlined the pipeline project.

Liberty is proposing to use a horizontal drilling technique. A drill rig would go in a pit in the traffic island at the intersection of Island Street and Winchester Streets.

From there, the machine would drill under Hickey-Desilets Park, under the river and under the opposite bank, ending near Winchester Court — about 720 feet in all. A length of 8-inch plastic pipe would be attached, and the drill would pull it back through the hole.

The resulting gas main would have less capacity than the West Street one, so it wouldn’t provide complete redundancy on the coldest days, when heating gas is in high demand. But it could handle enough volume for temperatures in the 10-to-15-degree range, Mills said.

Having a second crossing would also make it easier to do work on the West Street pipe without interrupting service, Mills said. That pipe is nearing the end of its useful life and should be replaced in the next one to three years, he said.

Steve Rokes, Liberty’s operations manager for Keene, said he believes the pipe dates to 1966.

But Clark and Patricia Martin of Rindge, a retired electrical engineer and environmental activist who testified for Clark, questioned the company’s redundancy rationale.

In an interview Monday, Martin said she thinks a second, lower-capacity pipe “doesn’t make sense” as a redundancy measure. Liberty could replace its West Street pipe more cheaply by using a temporary bypass, as it has done for previous repairs, she said.

Both she and Clark said they see the pipeline as part of Liberty’s broader plans to convert Keene to natural gas and expand its local customer base, at the expense of clean-energy efforts.

“People in Keene are really interested in transitioning to clean energy,” Martin said Monday, “and Liberty all of a sudden is driving what the city’s vision of itself should be.”

To cross under city-owned Hickey-Desilets Park, Liberty still has to obtain an easement. Clark said he’ll oppose any easement request and “mobilize people in this region that are opposed to this kind of thing” in an effort to sway his colleagues on the Keene City Council.

But rejection from the council wouldn’t necessarily kill the project. Liberty has drawn up a plan B that would stay in the public right of way, requiring no easement.

Liberty’s request to convert Keene to compressed natural gas is still pending before the Public Utilities Commission. In a December letter, the company said it is working to address the issues raised in an October assessment by commission safety staff.

If the commission signs off, Liberty would switch commercial customers in Monadnock Marketplace to natural gas this spring, using a temporary compressed natural gas facility on Production Avenue, according to the letter.

Liberty is also designing a permanent facility, with plans to convert the city to natural gas in phases over a number of years.

Liberty has said natural gas would be safer and more reliable than propane/air. A December 2015 malfunction in that system sent pure propane into the distribution system and caused a citywide emergency response in Keene. Four people were taken to the hospital and more than 1,000 homes and businesses were checked for carbon monoxide exposure."


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