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Critics Call For Shutdown, Safety Review Of Weymouth Compressor After Emergency Shutdown04:04
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The Weymouth gas compressor station by the Fore River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Weymouth gas compressor station by the Fore River. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Elected officials are calling on state and federal authorities to suspend construction and operations at a still-unfinished natural gas compressor station in Weymouth, after a gas leak and emergency shutdown last week.

The compressor station is in its "commissioning" phase, and is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

According to the company overseeing the project, Enbridge, a gasket failure led to a gas leak Friday morning. In response, workers triggered an emergency shutdown and vented all the gas in the station — about 265,000 standard cubic feet, including 35 pounds of volatile organic compounds.

A spokesman for Enbridge said in an email that while much of the gas was vented through the station's stack, an undisclosed amount was released at ground level. The spokesperson also said "safety procedures were properly followed and all personnel remained safe at the facility."

State Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Kathleen Theoharides, told reporters Tuesday that Enbridge followed all safety protocols after the release, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) is monitoring the station. She said state officials would make unannounced site visits to further ensure safe operations there.

The Weymouth gas compressor station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Weymouth gas compressor station. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But for many, assurances from Enbridge and the state are not enough.

After the incident, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, asking her agency to immediately suspend the opening and operation of the compressor station, pending a comprehensive review.

“This misguided and dangerous project presents an imminent public safety threat to the residents of Weymouth and its surrounding communities and must be subject to extensive state and federal oversight before any continuation in station operations,” Lynch wrote in the letter.

Dr. Regina LaRocque, an infectious disease specialist and member of the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has opposed construction of the compressor, also called for an immediate shutdown.

"They are putting all of us at risk by allowing it to continue to operate. It needs to stop immediately," LaRocque said.

She noted that a new review of the 2019 Health Impact Assessment (HIA) for the compressor found that the HIA was too narrow in scope, and should have incorporated concerns about climate change and public safety.

The group that oversaw the HIA, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), has also expressed public opposition to the compressor.

"Public safety issues in the event of a major malfunction and climate impacts, those were not in our scope,"said Marc Draisen, the executive director of the MAPC. "Those were supposed to be conducted by other parties, and I think that narrowed the scope too much."

Draisen said in a statement that the group's opposition is "strengthened by last Friday’s shutdown and natural gas venting at the site."

"We also continue to oppose the facility due to the fact that it will increase fossil fuel emissions in Massachusetts and beyond, with dire long-term consequences for the world’s climate," the statement continued. "The facility will also make it more difficult for the Commonwealth to achieve its emission obligations under the Global Warming Solutions Act."

In an interview, Draisen emphasized that the "vast majority" of the power to decide where compressor stations are built belongs to the federal government.

"The current perspective of the federal government, particularly the executive branch, is to encourage further extraction of fossil fuels and to locate the facilities that are necessary to maximize fossil fuel emissions," Draisen said. "Which flies in the face, I think, of what the people the United States want, and also flies in the face of what the world needs."

Congressman Lynch suggested that changes in federal legislation are needed to ensure projects like this don’t end up in places like Weymouth.

"These high pressure lines are now coming into urban areas. They present a whole menu of risks that were not present when these pipelines were going out into rural areas," Lynch said. "So we think the ultimate answer is to legislate this in a way and regulate this in a way that it provides safety for everyone."

State Sen. Patrick O'Connor, whose district includes Weymouth, has opposed the project since it was first proposed almost five years ago, and said he wishes state agencies had presented a united front to raise questions about siting a compressor station near a densely populated environmental justice community.

"Even before this thing goes online, it's already experiencing major issues? Hopefully it’s not a sign of worse things to come," O'Connor said. "It's very disheartening that at the get-go of this entire thing, some of the things that we’ve warned about [for years] are already coming true."

O'Connor said the state — and especially MassDEP — could and should have played a bigger role in scrutinizing this project.

"The air quality permit should never have been approved and there are tremendous concerns about environmental justice," O'Connor said. "MassDEP has been the one that really held a lot of the keys to stopping this through the various different permits that were eventually granted, and I think that as we move forward — and we talk about economic, environmental and racial justice — we need to talk about the siting of projects like this next to neighborhoods that are already completely inundated with projects of a similar magnitude that are detrimental to peoples’ health."

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, who tweeted "Shut it down" after the incident last week, said in a statement: “This is why we can’t compromise on environmental justice. This is why we can’t stop fighting for people living near dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure. When equipment on these facilities fails, it fails all of us.”

This article was originally published on September 16, 2020.

This segment aired on September 16, 2020.

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