NORRIDGEWOCK — While construction work on the final link of a $350 million Summit Natural Gas pipeline project continues, townspeople are concerned the delays are hurting business downtown.
On Wednesday, representatives from Summit met with selectmen and some disgruntled residents about construction delays, which the company says are because of soil conditions that are affecting drilling.
They also asked selectmen for the extended use of a municipal parking lot for equipment storage.
Selectmen granted approval, 4-1, of the parking lot use for up to five weeks on the condition that the company restore it to the same or better condition, but not until they listened to the concerns of some downtown business owners who said the drawn-out construction plans are beginning to take a toll.
Main Street traffic is also reduced to one lane as long as the drilling takes place, a plan approved by the state Department of Transportation, since Main Street is U.S. Route 2.
“Parking downtown is already virtually non-existent,” said Laura Lorette, owner of What’s For Supper?, a Main Street diner. “I’m a supporter of this gas line, and I think it would be very unfortunate if this gas line is what destroys my business.”
Access to the public parking lot next to the diner as well as street parking in front of the restaurant is blocked off. The sidewalk is also closed, and Lorette said that because of it, she gets only about a quarter to a third of the business she did before construction started.
Summit has been working on completing underground drilling in Norridgewock since last fall, although construction came to a halt for more than a month after a subcontractor abruptly left.
“I am concerned and have received phone calls of concern from businesses about not making money. I don’t find that very considerate of our residents,” said Selectwoman Charlotte Curtis. She also asked that the company consider a monetary compensation for businesses affected by the construction crews, which have been in town for more than five months.
Harrison York, owner of York’s Market, also on Main Street, said he too has seen negative effects of the extended pipeline construction and he doesn’t expect the company to do anything about it.
“I went through this last year and it almost put me out of business. If I have to go through it again, I probably will be out of business,” said York. He said he lost hundreds of dollars a day in sales last summer when construction crews first arrived in Norridgewock.
A distance of 2,000 feet is all that stands in the way of the pipeline’s completion, but completing the drilling necessary to connect transmission lines that begin in Pittston to the pipeline’s end in Madison have proven difficult, according to the company’s representatives Wednesday night.
Originally, the company planned to drill the entire 2,000 feet from the railroad tracks on Main Street under the Mill Stream and into Madison, but unpredictable soil conditions have made that impossible, said Mike Duguay, director of business development.
The company is now considering drilling into the ground twice, hoping to cover the 2,000 feet in shorter spurts, the first of which is expected to be completed Thursday night and will lay the pipeline under the railroad tracks, he said.
“The only option we’ve been able to find is to set the rest of the drill up in the road and take up one lane of traffic for an extended period of time. That is why we want to try and utilize one of those public parking lots,” said Bryan Foster, a project manager for Summit. The Maine Department of Transportation has approved a traffic plan for the construction and the company plans to make headway with round-the-clock construction, said Foster.
The long term presence of construction not only threatens downtown business, but could temporarily cut off access to the town fire department, which is also on Main Street. Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said the department is working on a temporary solution for relocation, which would be for two days at the most, and would likely mean that trucks would be stored in the public works building.
Selectmen, too, are concerned about the delays in connecting the pipeline, although there was no action taken to protect businesses.
“Where you’re setting up is really going to affect businesses significantly and drastically. It will have immediate effects and I think they should be compensated for their loss of time and business,” said selectman Matt Everett. “If we don’t grant use of the parking lot, however, it is likely construction will take even longer.”
The delays of pipeline construction in Norridgewock have also frustrated officials a few miles north at Madison Paper Industries, which still isn’t connected to natural gas even after months of delays and a most recent estimate that the hookup would happen by mid-March.
Russ Dreschel, president and CEO of Madison Paper, said earlier this week that the delays have been frustrating and costly. Madison Paper, which employs about 250 people and is the town’s largest taxpayer, is a key anchor customer of the gas project, having signed a contract with Summit in June.
Madison Paper originally was scheduled to be connected in November, but Summit’s construction of the pipeline in Norridgewock came to a halt after a subcontractor on the project abruptly left.
Schmid Pipeline Construction Inc. has since filed a lawsuit claiming it was forced to increase the workforce, working hours, materials and equipment to meet a greater workload than was outlined in its contract and without additional pay from Summit, which has denied the allegations. The case is scheduled to go to trial in federal court later this year.
Dreschel would not comment on the delay’s financial effect on the paper mill, but he said the gas company told him the drilling problems in Norridgewock were to blame for the latest delay.
Among Summit’s current customers are the city of Augusta, Regional School Unit 11 in Gardiner and Inland Hospital in Waterville, where natural gas began flowing last week. The company also has contracts to connect Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan, Huhtamaki in Fairfield and Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan. The contracts with those businesses all have estimated connection dates for later this year.
In total, the project will include a 68-mile transmission pipeline stretching up the Kennebec River Valley from Pittston to Madison and more than 300 miles of distribution lines throughout central Maine. The section in Norridgewock is the last part of transmission line remaining, and once completed will connect the pipeline to already laid transmission line in Madison. Proponents of the project say it will lower heating costs for more than 700 businesses and 4,500 individual customers in the coming year.
Competitor Maine Natural Gas of Brunswick is also building a 21-mile pipeline from Windsor to Augusta and has contracts to serve state buildings in Augusta and MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new hospital in north Augusta. A spokesman said there have been no delays on that project.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 [email protected]