A state official decided Thursday to reopen appeals hearings regarding an air permit for a controversial proposed natural gas compressor station in Weymouth.
The decision comes after two tumultuous weeks in which the state Department of Environmental Protection released new air quality data showing higher carcinogen levels around the proposed site than previously reported, and then faced possible sanctions for the delay in releasing the data.
Jane Rothchild, the hearing officer in the Weymouth case, said in her decision that the DEP's delayed data release prevented compressor opponents "from having a fair and complete opportunity to cross-examine the Department’s witnesses on the additional data."
"MassDEP’s late disclosure upended the proceedings, created a perception of withholding information that might be relevant to resolution of the appeals, and threatens to delay the issuance of a Final Decision," she wrote.
Opponents of the natural gas pipeline project applauded Rothchild's decision to reopen the hearings.
"Given the massive amount of new information we were given, it was really the only fair, ethical and legal thing that she could have done," said Alice Arena, who leads the activist group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station.
Energy giant Enbridge wants to build the compressor station as part of its Atlantic Bridge project to expand natural gas pipeline capacity to New England and Canada. The state gave Enbridge the air permit earlier this year, and opponents appealed the decision. Two days into the appeals hearing, the DEP released the new air quality data. Rothchild suspended the hearing, and ordered DEP officials to explain why they released the data so late in the process.
In an email released as part of the response to Rothchild's order, Gary Moran, the DEP's deputy commissioner for operations and environmental compliance, addressed the previously unreported carcinogenic and hazardous compounds, noting that “the levels of toxics reported are consistent with levels measured in other developed areas (including [in] Lynn and Boston where we routinely do air monitoring) ... and what generally ... we would expect in background air.”
But the data raised questions for Nathan Philips, a professor of earth and environment at Boston University who is one of the petitioners in the appeals case against the DEP.
“Is this representative of how bad it is all year round?” he asked. “If our opponents start to argue, ‘Well you can't really interpret much from these small set of samples’ they're making the argument that we need a broad and comprehensive study.”
Hearings will resume on June 10, and the state will make a final decision on the air-quality permit by the end of June.