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The start-up of the controversial Weymouth gas compressor station delayed at least until January

The new gas pipeline compressor station was set to open this month, but now faces a full safety review.
The new gas pipeline compressor station was set to open this month, but now faces a full safety review.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2020

A controversial natural gas compressor station in Weymouth will not start pumping natural gas this week, as the operator had previously indicated, and the start date now depends on the resolution of a full safety review that is not expected until January.

Max Bergeron, a spokesman for Enbridge, told the Globe last week that the company was planning to put the compressor station into operation this week, shipping gas north to Maine and Canada. On Wednesday, however, Bergeron cited a federal agency’s safety review and said the compressor won’t begin operations until the agency “has lifted the remaining restrictions.”

Bergeron did not specify when he thought the compressor would begin full operations, but a spokesman for Representative Stephen Lynch said he was told by Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — the agency in charge of the review — that the matter would likely not be resolved until next month.

The agency ordered the review after workers at the compressor initiated two emergency shutdowns in September after two mishaps.

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This delay brings another reprieve to local citizens and communities who have fought the $100 million compressor for the last six years as a health and safety risk in the polluted, densely populated Fore River Basin. The 7,700-horsepower compressor, the subject of a Globe investigation on Sunday, would pump gas north from Weymouth to Maine and Canada.

When in full service, it will pump up to 57.5 million cubic feet of gas a day, pressurizing it up to 1,440 pounds per square inch through high-strength carbon steel pipes.

A spokesperson for Representative Stephen Lynch of Boston said that federal regulators had informed the congressman’s office on Monday that a pending safety review would have to be completed before any start-up of the compressor.

“And that can’t happen until the safety review is completed,” said Molly Tarpey, spokesperson for Lynch. “That would take us into January.”

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Also on Monday, Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren wrote to the administrator of PHMSA urging him not to allow the compressor to operate until the full safety review is completed. They were concerned because the agency on Nov. 25 had approved a start-up plan from Enbridge that allowed the company to begin pressurizing the compressor last week to prepare it for operation.

However, a PHMSA spokesman told the Globe on Wednesday that the compressor is only permitted for now to function at reduced pressure — a level that Enbridge has said is insufficient to run the compressor as intended.

“They won’t resume full operation until the root cause analysis is done,” said a PHMSA spokesman.

Bergeron, a spokesman for Enbridge, stressed that the company has identified and addressed “the preliminary direct cause” for each of the two September shutdowns that caused 444,000 cubic feet of methane gas to be vented into the air — a faulty gasket for the first, and an electrical failure in the station’s emergency shutdown panel for the second.

Given the high pressure required to pump “much-needed natural gas to customers located to the north of the Weymouth Compressor Station, including natural gas utilities in Maine and Atlantic Canada,” said Bergeron in a statement, “we will only be able to flow natural gas through the station once PHMSA has lifted the remaining restrictions.”

The two emergency shutdowns in September delayed the compressor’s planned opening on Oct. 1. Because the Weymouth compressor is in what regulators call “a high consequence area” — densely populated, with nearby schools and nursing homes and next to the busy commuter Fore River Bridge — the shutdown and safety review were ordered.

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Enbridge originally hoped to open the compressor in the fall of 2017, nearly three years after it was proposed. But strong opposition from area communities and the citizens group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, FRRACS, delayed it. Still, it has moved inexorably forward, winning first federal approvals, then crucial state permits from Governor Charlie Baker.

“We are extremely happy this is being paused until the root cause analysis is completed,” said Alice Arena, president of FRRACS. “It gives us a chance to have a holiday without having to think about being blown up.”