Last year, the Department of Environmental Protection sent air samples from the site of a proposed natural gas compressor station to a private laboratory and asked scientists to test for the presence of 64 different potential toxins.
What they initially got back — and what was used to perform a health impact assessment that led to a green light for the controversial project — was based on tests that only looked for 40 different toxins.
That omission as explained by the department on Monday, and scrutiny over the DEP's decision to wait three days before turning over the full data set to project opponents last week, raised new questions about how the state will proceed with an appeal of an air quality permit central to a major natural gas pipeline expansion project into New England.
After becoming aware that a separate lab produced significantly different results with similar air samples, officials realized that the data they had reviewed covered only two-thirds of what they had requested. While it remains unclear when DEP officials noticed the discrepancy, the department said it reached out this month to Alpha Analytical — the lab that did testing for Massachusetts — seeking an updated report.
The DEP received that information late Monday afternoon, but did not provide it to the parties appealing the compressor station's air-quality permit until Thursday evening, with only one day remaining for the appeal hearing.
That delay in turning over the full air analysis now puts the department at risk of sanctions after a department attorney responsible for overseeing legal challenges demanded answers to key questions and full email transcripts containing any discussion of the new information. Beyond that, the updated data — which opponents say shows significantly higher carcinogen levels than previous reported — casts uncertainty over whether the air-quality permit for energy giant Enbridge's proposed facility will remain in effect.
"The additional data, and any potential impact on the air quality permit proceedings, remain under consideration by the Appeals Officer at MassDEP," Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the DEP, said in a statement Monday afternoon. "Furthermore, while the Department maintains the integrity of its analysis of health and air quality conditions associated with the project, MassDEP will immediately work with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to thoroughly analyze the information and provide any necessary updates to the HIA."
For years, Enbridge — formerly known as Spectra — has been pushing to build a compressor station near the Fore River in Weymouth. Opponents quickly rallied against the project, warning that its operations would negatively impact health in environmental justice areas that already experience above-average rates of respiratory illness and that the shoreline location in a relatively dense area was a threat to public safety.
Last year, the DEP sent samples from the proposed shoreline site of the compressor facility to Alpha Analytical, asking the lab to test for 64 different toxins instead of the 40 the lab had reviewed for as part of past work done for the agency. The data returned to the state, however, only included an examination for the typical 40 substances.
The head of the DEP's air assessment branch reviewed the results, and the information contributed to a January health impact assessment concluding the facility would not cause significant health problems.
The gaps in the data did not become apparent until months later.
As climate news website DeSmog reported in April, similar air samples from the station's site sent to the Rhode Island Department of Health indicated the presence of several contaminants Alpha's initial tests for Massachusetts did not find.
When regulators learned of the "broader scope of results in the testing," Coletta said, they asked Alpha this month to provide any additional tests that were not included in the first batch. Alpha sent a 759-page document to DEP officials on Monday afternoon, and attorneys for the department informed parties in the appeal case Thursday.
The sudden revelation — three days after receiving the information, and just before the final day of a hearing that had been scheduled for months — immediately raised eyebrows. Jane Rothchild, who is serving as hearing officer in the Weymouth case, called it "unacceptable."
On Monday, Rothchild formally demanded the DEP provide all emails connected to the new batch of air-quality data and answer both why the information was not immediately disclosed and whether it was given to Enbridge before the petitioners. Rothchild also hinted that she may pursue sanctions against the department under the regulatory code related to DEP hearings.
"According to representations made to me by the Department's attorney at the Hearing on May 17, 2019, the Department received the data from a laboratory on Monday, May 13, 2019, two days prior to the start of the Hearing on Wednesday, May 15, 2019," Rothchild wrote in an order to show cause. "The Department's delay in disclosing the data to the other parties to the appeal until after the close of business on May 16, 2019, is unacceptable and may warrant the imposition of sanctions against the Department pursuant to 310 CMR 1.01."
Coletta did not answer when asked why the data that was received Monday was not forwarded to other parties until Thursday.
However, the department intends to meet Rothchild's deadline for a response by Wednesday at 5 p.m., according to a DEP official.
A key question now is whether a fuller understanding of the complete data set will affect the overall status of the project.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which conducted the health impact assessment based on what is now known to be incomplete data, opposes the compressor station on other grounds, and said it is studying the latest release.
"We are always open to new data," MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen said Friday. "We should review it and we will."
Other advocates have already raised concerns about what the data contains. Earlier on Monday, the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility said it found "more than 9,000 insertions and deletions" in the amended report, including the presence of at least 11 toxins not included in the initial version.
"We demand that Governor Charlie Baker place a hold on issuing the air quality permit to Spectra-Enbridge Energy and extend the appeal hearing process to allow proper scrutiny of these previously undisclosed findings," the group said. "Moreover, we demand that the DEP's potentially improper collaboration with Spectra-Enbridge Energy be fully examined by the Attorney General's office."
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