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BU Professor Is On Hunger Strike Over Weymouth Compressor

Nathan Phillips, a Boston University Earth and Environment professor, at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Nathan Phillips, a Boston University Earth and Environment professor, at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Boston University professor Nathan Phillips taps his computer keyboard, and a video pops onto the screen. The video shows a dump truck driving over the Fore River Bridge, dust drifting out of its back side.

"You can see the material coming off the back of that truck," Phillips says, pointing to other photos showing the same truck loading up coal ash at a construction site in Weymouth, where the energy company Enbridge is planning to build a natural gas compressor station. "They were supposed to have a decontamination station, decontamination pads and a procedure for washing the trucks off so that when they would leave, they would not have residue from coal ash blowing off the back or dropping off the trucks."

It was the dump trucks that pushed Phillips to begin a hunger strike on Jan. 29, to raise awareness about what he calls "serious public health and safety violations" at the Weymouth construction site.

For a little over a week, Philips has consumed only water, unsweetened tea, a daily multivitamin and sea salt. He's still teaching and conducting research, but has cut back on other activities to conserve energy — like swapping his bicycle for an electronic bike for his daily commute, for instance. He has already lost 10 pounds, but says he plans to continue the hunger strike "indefinitely" until his demands are met.

"It's not about me," Phillips says. "I'm a vehicle for putting the spotlight where it belongs. And that's on the Fore River Basin itself and the injustice that's happening there."

Nathan Phillips, a Boston University earth and environment professor, and activist Andrea Honore speak with reporters at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Nathan Phillips, a Boston University earth and environment professor, and activist Andrea Honore speak with reporters at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Phillips is demanding that the contractor better decontaminate dump trucks leaving the site to prevent the spread of potentially contaminated dirt, and also wants the state to begin comprehensive testing for asbestos in the soil.

Documents filed with the state in 2018 show that dirt at the site contains arsenic and coal ash — the black grit laden with heavy metals that's left after coal burns. Philips and other activists also say that old furnace bricks buried at the site may contain asbestos, which could be released to the air if the bricks are pulverized during construction. Construction began on the site in December 2019 and crews have been removing soil from the site for weeks.

"There is no area for decontamination, no wash station," Alice Arena, president of the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS), wrote in an email. "We have watched trucks pull in, load up, and leave with no inspection or cleaning."

Max Bergeron, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said in an email that the company is using "dust control and monitoring measures" as outlined in the abatement plan.

"We are following the proper procedures for trucks removing soil from the Weymouth Compressor Station site, consistent with the [abatement] Plan," Bergeron wrote. "Trucks are inspected before leaving the site to ensure that regulated soils are not tracked off-property. The paved road leading to the Compressor Station site is swept on a regular basis as an added measure to ensure no tracking of regulated soil onto local roadways."

Bergeron added that brick samples collected from representative locations across the work area were analyzed by an accredited laboratory, and no asbestos was detected. Philips contends that the brick samples did not include older bricks that may be buried deeper in the site.

Phillips' third demand, that the Baker administration agree to install a permanent air quality monitoring system near the site, was met last week.

"The Baker-Polito Administration has made the installation and operation of a long-term monitoring station in the Fore River Area a priority," said Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), in an e-mail. "The Department looks forward to beginning data collection and installing a permanent facility in the community."

MassDEP has scheduled a meeting with representatives of FRRACS for Friday to discuss the status of the abatement plan and MassDEP’s ongoing oversight of activities at the site.

Philips says he hopes that the agency will agree to his demands at that time, so he can end his hunger strike.

Related:

Barbara Moran Twitter Senior Producing Editor, Environment
Barbara Moran is the senior producing editor for WBUR’s environmental vertical.

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