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Feds Investigating Unplanned Gas Releases At Weymouth Compressor

The Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station, photographed on Sept. 13. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station, photographed on Sept. 13. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The federal government is investigating what caused an emergency shutdown and unplanned gas release at the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station on Wednesday, and whether it's related to the station's Sept. 11 shutdown and gas release.

The announcement by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), an agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation, comes on the same day the facility was slated to start sending gas northward to Maine and Canada.

According to PHMSA, Enbridge — the Canadian company behind the project — cannot restart the facility until the federal investigation is complete and a series of mechanical "corrective actions" have been met. Just hours earlier on Thursday, Enbridge announced it was "temporarily" pausing all operations at the compressor.

"Continued operation of the Station without corrective measures is or would be hazardous to the life, property, or the environment, and that failure to issue this Order expeditiously would result in the likelihood of harm," PHMSA Associate Administrator Alan K. Mayberry wrote in a Corrective Action Order.

In coming to this conclusion, Mayberry said, PHMSA considered the fact that the compressor is in a "high consequence area" and is located near a densely populated suburb and a "heavily trafficked commuter road."

"There were no injuries or fatalities associated with the [Sept. 11 and Sept. 30] Incidents; however, the release of large quantities of natural gas in a heavily populated areas carries a substantial risk of fire, explosion, and personal injury or death and releases harmful methane into the environment," he wrote.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both outspoken critics of the compressor station, applauded the news.

“After two recent unplanned releases of gas at the Weymouth Compressor Station, a third time would not be the charm, it could be a disaster," Markey said in a statement. “PHMSA was correct to call for a halt to activities at the site and investigate these dangerous accidents."

"Let me say it again: the Weymouth compressor station is a safety nightmare for South Shore families," Warren tweeted.

Markey also reiterated his calls for the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission, or FERC, to "immediately rescind" the compressor's certificate of public convenience and necessity, a 2017 order authorizing Enbridge to move forward with the project, and a more recent order allowing the company to put the station "into service."

"This project is not necessary and endangers the public," Markey said, adding that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection should "conduct complete, comprehensive, and updated reassessments of the public health, safety, and environmental impacts of this project."

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for MassDEP said “the Baker-Polito Administration believes the compressor station in Weymouth should be shut down until a thorough, transparent investigation into safety issues is completed and a determination is made by [PHMSA] that the facility is safe to operate."

The Baker administration, which opponents of the project frequently criticize for not stopping the project, has consistently argued that only the federal government has jurisdiction over the Weymouth Compressor.

That said, "the Commonwealth remains committed to ensuring that all environmental requirements are met and will continue to conduct site inspections and monitor air quality in the area," the MassDEP spokesman wrote.

On Sept. 11, an O-ring gasket failed, prompting workers to manually trigger the station's emergency shutdown system and vent 265,000 cubic feet of natural gas into the air. Some portion of that gas was released at ground level where critics of the project say it's more likely to ignite and explode.

Less is known about the Sept. 30 incident, but according to PHMSA, the incident resulted in the release of 275,000 cubic feet of gas. A spokesman for Enbridge did not immediately confirm this number, but said none of the gas was released at ground level.

Both incidents remain under investigation.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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