The Vermont Legislature may soon debate whether a proposed natural gas pipeline can run under Lake Champlain.
That’s because the lake is held in the public trust. And a leading Vermont lawmaker says the Legislature must decide how that public trust resource is used.
The public trust doctrine is a legal tenet that dates back to ancient Rome. The doctrine has been recognized by the Vermont Supreme Court, and it holds that public waterways – and the land underneath them – are a resource owned by everyone.
Westminster Democrat David Deen chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. He recalls that lawmakers got involved in the 1980s after the state Supreme Court ruled that filled land along the Burlington waterfront was deemed to be held in the public trust.
"The use of a public trust resource is in the hands of the representatives of the people. And in that case, we had to approve Burlington using that filled land, because the bottom of the lake is impressed with the public trust," he said. "It is a public resource."
The Burlington waterfront land used to be part of the lake bottom but it was filled in by the railroads and then abandoned. The city – thanks to the Supreme Court and the Legislature – was able to claim the filled lands for a bike path and waterfront park.
"That public trust aspect of water applies to the land under the water," Deen said.
Deen says the Legislature will also have to weigh in on a proposal by Vermont Gas to extend a natural gas pipeline underneath the lake bed to Ticonderoga, New York.
"They’re going to be going through land that is impressed with the public trust. So I suspect that they’re will need some action from the Legislature and the ‘government’ of the state of Vermont," he said.
Vermont Gas Systems announced this week that International Paper will pay the full cost of the $70 million pipeline project. The paper company says the natural gas supply will lower its fuel costs.
Vermont Gas spokesman Steve Wark says the company is aware of all the legal requirements it has to meet before it can begin construction.
"Rep. Deen has rightly identified what we all know: that Lake Champlain is a natural resource that must be protected," Wark said. "And of course, we’re going to follow all rules, laws and regulations and obtain the necessary permissions before any action is taken."
Deen says the public trust question is not addressed by the other state and federal permits that the project needs. He says the Legislature needs to act in addition to the various environmental reviews.