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Permits are hurdle for Vermont utility

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- The Public Service Board is expected to rule in January on a major new power line planned for northwestern Vermont, but the company could face big new hurdles.

By one estimate, the 64-mile set of power lines between West Rutland and South Burlington will cross 287 wetlands. Altering a wetland requires permits both from the state Agency of Natural Resources and from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Vermont Electric Power Co. still hopes to start construction this winter. Winter construction is usually required in wetlands, because they are frozen and damage to them is minimized.

But VELCO's spokesman confirmed that the company has yet to apply for permits from either the Army Corps or the state environmental agency.

''I think we're in the process of moving ahead with the necessary permits," VELCO's David Mace said. ''I don't know if we've evaluated or not whether we're going to be able to hold to our initial construction schedule."

Project opponents met Nov. 10 with an official in the Army Corps' Vermont office, and were told typical turnaround time for a wetland permit there is about six months.

Michael Adams, the Army Corps project manager who attended that meeting, confirmed in an interview that he had not received any permit application from VELCO.

Critics of the VELCO project, including James Dumont, the lawyer for the town of New Haven, have argued that the board should not try to make its decision by January given the likely delays while the other permits are awaited. ''They say they need to start construction soon." Dumont said in an interview. ''They can't, so let's do this right."

Dumont said one good use of extra time would be for the board to make a closer examination of the reliability standards VELCO says it is trying to meet with the project.

VELCO, which operates Vermont's bulk electric transmission system, has argued that northwestern Vermont's electric grid is becoming unreliable because of increasing demand, especially in Chittenden County.

In a months-long procedural squabble among lawyers, the board first said it would not look at testimony from an expert witness indicating VELCO might be overstating its case on reliability and that the project might not be needed. Last week, it said it wanted to stick with its schedule and issue a ruling in January.

Yesterday, however, the board said it would consider the testimony of the witness on reliability issues. It said it believed it could do so without delaying the case.

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