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For the last few years, a coalition of South Shore towns and local activists have worked to block the construction of a natural gas compressor station in North Weymouth. The project involves multiple permits and court cases at the state and federal level, making it hard for even the most avid news consumer to follow.
So whether you've been reading about the issue for years and have questions, or are hearing about the project for the first time, here's what you need to know:
What's a compressor station?
As natural gas flows through a pipe, it loses pressure because of friction and turbulence. Energy companies build compressor stations along interstate pipeline routes to “boost” pressure and keep the gas flowing. There are five compressor stations in Massachusetts, and another 1,400 or so across the country.
What's the Weymouth compressor?
The proposed 7,700-horsepower Weymouth compressor would be part of energy giant Enbridge’s Atlantic Bridge Project. The company wants to put the compressor in the Fore River Basin — a residential-industrial area of North Weymouth — because it would allow the company to connect two existing pipelines and deliver natural gas to New England and Canada.
Who opposes it and why?
Activist groups like FRRACS (Fore River Residents Against Compressor Station) and Mothers Out Front, as well as nonprofit and citizen groups, like the Sierra Club of Massachusetts and 350 Mass For A Better Future, are actively fighting the project.
The mayor of Weymouth opposes the compressor station, despite Enbridge's offer to pay the city $47 million in 2016. The mayors of Quincy and Braintree and the Hingham Board of Selectmen also oppose it. The area's congressman, Rep. Stephen Lynch, has come out against the compressor, as have U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Attorney General Maura Healey. (Gov. Charlie Baker has recognized public concerns but hasn't taken a definitive stance on the project.)
Opposition to the compressor tends to focus on three things: concerns about fossil fuels and climate change; safety and emergency response plans; and public health and environmental justice. Let’s tackle these one-by-one:
1. Concerns about fossil fuels: The proposed pipeline infrastructure is designed to last for decades, so critics worry that facilities like the Weymouth compressor will prolong the region's reliance on fossil fuels. Compressor stations also emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
2. Concerns about safety and emergency response: Accidents at compressor stations are rare, but not unheard of. In January, a cold snap caused a Michigan compressor station to release a large quantity of methane, which caught fire and exploded. No one was injured, but people living near the proposed Weymouth compressor worry that if an accident happened in their city, they wouldn’t be so lucky.
With about 3,100 people per square mile, Weymouth is more densely populated than any other municipality in the state that hosts a compressor station. (The five existing stations are in Hopkinton, Mendon, Charlton, Agawam and Southwick.)
The proposed site, which is prone to coastal flooding, is also less than 1.5 miles from schools with more than 3,000 students, elderly housing, nursing homes and a mental health facility. Those trying to stop the compressor worry that an accident at the station could damage the Fore River Bridge or other critical infrastructure, and prevent a timely and safe evacuation.
3. Public health and environmental justice concerns: The proposed area of North Weymouth is already burdened by industrial activities and includes two state-designated “environmental justice” communities. State data also shows that residents have statistically higher rates of cancer, pediatric asthma and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. As a recent report from the group Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility notes, “the proposed compressor station is, even by data provided by the company itself, likely to worsen the health and safety at this already at-risk community.”
Why doesn’t Enbridge build the compressor somewhere else?
Enbridge considered seven alternative sites for the compressor station, including three other locations in Weymouth. After analyzing the options, the company chose the proposed site for a few reasons.
First, Enbridge says it's already at the junction of the two gas lines it’s trying to connect, so building the compressor station there would "not require construction of any additional pipeline outside of the compressor station property." And it would be less disruptive to local landowners, forests, wetlands, water bodies and public roads than any of the alternatives, the company says.
Enbridge also likes the Weymouth location because it’s close to other industrial facilities like “the Fore River Bridge, a gasoline/oil depot, a chemical plant, and a sewage pelletizing plant.” Critics of the project, however, say the proximity to industrial facilities is a public safety threat since an accident or fire at one could cause problems at others.
In a 2015 report, Enbridge concluded that the proposed site “strikes the optimal balance between the requirements of compression … while minimizing environmental disturbances, expense, and maintaining service to the existing customers."
Where do the federal and state governments fit in?
To build the compressor station, Enbridge needs permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC oversees interstate pipeline infrastructure, and approved the plan in 2017, concluding that though “population density affects the public safety risks posed by the Project … the siting of these facilities will not result in a significant increase in risk to the nearby public.”
But the state also has a say. The Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) still needs to complete a federal consistency review, which will determine whether the project is in compliance with all laws and regulations, and the the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) must issue and finalize three permits: an air quality permit, a wetlands permit and a waterways permit. Of the three, the air quality permit has been the most contentious.
Before issuing this permit, the state wants to see that emissions from the new facility won’t increase air pollution to unhealthy levels. It does this by modeling — not necessarily measuring — the sum of current (ambient) and potential pollutants. MassDEP is particularly concerned with hazardous air pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde and toluene, which are known to cause health problems.
Opponents question the accuracy of MassDEP's modeling process, and in 2017, members of FRRACs decided to do their own air quality survey. Using grant money, they placed special air canisters around the proposed site and sent them to a private lab in California for analysis.
The results were concerning: The air canisters showed hazardous air pollutants like benzene, xylenes and toluene, and sometimes in concentrations that already exceeded MassDEP standards.
Armed with these findings, FRRACS pleaded with the state to deny Enbridge’s air permit. Baker reiterated his stance that the ultimate decision was up to the federal government, but also directed MassDEP and the state Department of Public Health to produce a comprehensive health impact assessment. (He also ordered reviews about public safety and climate resiliency; neither have been produced yet.)
In early 2018, the state and Enbridge agreed that MassDEP would decide whether to issue the air permit by the following January, and that any appeals to the decision would be settled by June 28. This deadline gave MassDEP and DPH about 10 months to do the air quality tests and publish the health impact assessment.
What did the air quality test and health assessment study find?
MassDEP conducted two rounds of air quality tests in the summer and fall of 2018 and issued the heath impact assessment, and then the air quality permit, in January 2019.
Though the tests revealed heightened levels of two carcinogens — benzene and formaldehyde — the health impact assessment concluded “that estimated air emissions from the proposed station are not likely to cause health effects through direct exposure.”
Opponents who looked at the raw air quality data came to a different conclusion about the public health risk, and appealed the decision.
An appeal hearing was scheduled for May in front of MassDEP presiding officer Jane Rothchild. But before the hearing got underway, a few big things happened:
- In February, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility published a report challenging the health impact assessment’s methodology and conclusion. The report said the pollution from the compressor would create “an unacceptable health risk to the surrounding community.” The group also accused the governor of “[directing] the health impact assessment to disregard the substantial public safety and emergency response hazards related to the proposed compressor station.”
- The following week, the head of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which was involved in the health assessment, said he opposed the proposed compressor. He told WBUR that his opposition stemmed from concerns about public safety and climate resiliency.
- And then in April, freelance journalist Itai Vardi wrote a story for DeSmogBlog revealing that MassDEP hadn’t published all of the air quality results. Vardi discovered that the department had sent a few air canisters to a lab in Rhode Island for quality control and didn’t include the results in the health impact assessment. When Vardi dug into the Rhode Island results, he found that they showed traces of toxins the Massachusetts lab didn’t report.
Why did the state send canisters to Rhode Island?
MassDEP says it sent canisters to Rhode Island for quality control, but didn’t expect to have the results before publishing the health impact assessment.
Vardi’s story, though, showed that MassDEP got the results on Dec. 26, 2018, 10 days before it published the assessment. MassDEP says that the Rhode Island tests were never intended to inform the assessment, and it’s still unclear whether anyone at MassDEP looked closely at the data before Vardi’s reporting.
The Rhode Island lab found concentrations of 1,3 butadiene — a carcinogen — and acrolein — another dangerous toxin — at levels higher than what the state permits.
It was against this backdrop that the three-day appeals hearing about the air quality permits began on May 15 at the MassDEP headquarters near Downtown Crossing.
What happened at the hearing?
The first two days of the hearing unfolded as you might expect, with both sides calling witnesses to bolster their claims. The big news came at the end of the second day.
Around 6 p.m., MassDEP released a 759-page document containing previously unpublished air quality data from Alpha Analytical, the Massachusetts lab that analyzed the Weymouth canisters. The report showed additional hazardous chemicals already in the air near the proposed compressor site, including the carcinogen 1,3-butadiene.
While MassDEP said the supplemental data doesn't change the findings of the health impact assessment, compressor opponents say the report demonstrates two things: that North Weymouth already has an air pollution problem, and that the health impact study should be invalidated.
In the wake of the new data, presiding officer Rothchild suspended the hearing and requested a list of internal MassDEP emails and affidavits from four department officials. She also scolded the department, writing that its “late disclosure upended the proceedings, created a perception of withholding information that might be relevant to resolution of the appeal, and threatens to delay the issuance of a Final Decision.”
The hearings resumed on June 10 when the petitioners cross-examined DEP officials about the supplemental data. Here's what we learned from the testimony:
- MassDEP regularly contracts with the Rhode Island State Lab for air quality tests, but because of the short turnaround time required for the health impact assessment, the department needed to contract with a private lab. It selected Alpha Analytical, a lab it’s worked with in the past.
- MassDEP asked Alpha Analytical to test for 64 pollutants but only got results for 40 of them. (This isn’t as weird as it sounds. There are a few common EPA-accepted air pollution tests. One looks at 64 pollutants and another looks at 40. Based on DEP testimony, it sounds like Alpha Analytical mistakenly ran the wrong panel of tests and no one at DEP noticed.)
- It was Vardi's reporting on the Rhode Island tests that prompted MassDEP to review the results it got from Alpha Analytical. After realizing the department had incomplete data, it asked Alpha Analytical for the missing 24 compounds. Emails show the lab sent some of the updated results on May 10 and the rest on May 13, two days before the appeals hearing began.
- Asked why MassDEP didn’t immediately notify the public — or at least the petitioners — about the supplemental data, those testifying from the department said that it’s standard practice to review data before releasing it to the public. (None of the MassDEP officials who testified knew who was responsible for doing this review, and why it took three days to release the data.)
What happens next?
While Rothchild said that the day’s testimony shines “a not-so-favorable light on a process within the department," she declined a request to hear from more MassDEP witnesses. She's expected to give her formal recommendation about the air quality permit any day.
MassDEP then has until July 12 to decide whether to uphold or revoke the permit. If the permit is upheld, the petitioners will likely appeal to the federal courts. If the permit is rescinded, it’s likely Enbridge will appeal to the federal courts as well.
And remember, that’s just the air permit.
There are 17 other ongoing lawsuits and administrative appeals concerning the compressor, including appeals of MassDEP's waterways and wetlands permits. And at some point, Enbridge will need a federal consistency determination from the Office of Coastal Zone Management because the proposed project is so close to the water.
It is unclear when any of these decisions will be made, and as Rep. Lynch told WBUR this week at a public meeting about the compressor, the fight is far from over.
"It's been almost five years [and] we're probably in the bottom of the 6th or top of the 7th inning. So we've got some ways to go," he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mixed up, in one instance, the federal and state Offices of Coastal Zone Management. We regret the error.
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