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After years of protests, a glimmer of hope for opponents to the Weymouth gas compressor

The Weymouth Compressor Station
The Weymouth Compressor StationJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After years of protests, residents opposing a controversial natural gas compressor station in Weymouth received a glimmer of hope Tuesday that federal regulators might reconsider last fall’s decision to allow the plant to operate.

In a vote by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a majority of members ruled the panel had improperly denied a request for a hearing on its approval from neighbors and environmental advocates who have long opposed the compressor. The commissioners, one of whom was appointed since the facility won approval in the fall, cited safety and environmental concerns for their action.

The vote comes after the compressor had two emergency shutdowns in September — just days after regulators authorized it to start operating. It has yet to resume operations, and it’s unclear when it will be allowed to do so.

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At an online hearing, Commissioner Richard Glick said the FERC must look more closely at the impact of the station on low-income residents who live nearby and “do more than give lip service to environmental justice.”

“That needs to change,” he said.

In a post on Twitter, Glick added that the station “raises serious environmental justice questions, which we need to examine. The communities surrounding the project are regularly subjected to high levels of pollution & residents are concerned emissions from the station will make things worse.”

A new commissioner, Allison Clements, a Democratic appointee, said the commission should “carefully consider how to address health and safety concerns.” The commissioners serve five-year, staggered terms, and no more than three of the five commissioners may be from the same party as the president.

This ruling comes after residents spent six years fighting the $100 million compressor, which they have said presents health and safety risks to the polluted, densely populated Fore River Basin.

The 7,700-horsepower compressor was built by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline giant, as part of its $600 million Atlantic Bridge project. The compressor, the subject of a Globe investigation last year, seeks to pump 57.5 million cubic feet of gas a day from Weymouth to Maine and Canada.

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“This is significant because this is the first time in six years that they have actually considered our concerns about environmental justice, health, and safety,” said Alice Arena, president of Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station.

“This is a validation, in a way, but we’re very jaded at this point,” she added. “We want to say, ‘What took you so long?’ It’s frustrating, because they’ve had all this information for a long time now.”

Max Bergeron, a spokesman for Enbridge, said the company remains “committed to a transparent and inclusive public permitting process.”

“We look forward to placing the Weymouth Compressor Station into full service, in compliance with applicable regulations, to deliver much-needed natural gas for local gas utilities in Maine and Atlantic Canada,” he said in a statement.

It’s unclear when the station will resume operations. Last month, Bergeron said the plant was awaiting the completion of a safety review by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a federal agency. He said the company had identified “the preliminary direct cause” of both shutdowns in September.

In the first incident, a faulty gasket was responsible, and in the second, there was an electrical failure in the station’s emergency shutdown panel, he said. Together, they caused 444,000 cubic feet of methane to be vented into the air.

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Last month, Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren urged the PHMSA administrator not to allow the compressor to operate until the review was completed. They were concerned that the agency had approved a plan by Enbridge that would have allowed the station to begin pressurizing the compressor to prepare it for operation.

A PHMSA spokesman last month said the compressor was permitted to function only at reduced pressure, a level that Enbridge has said would be insufficient to run the compressor as intended.

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

After learning of the FERC ruling, Markey posted on Twitter that he was glad the agency “is finally acknowledging the failures of the Weymouth Compressor Station process, especially as it relates to the project’s negative impact on the environmental justice communities.”

Enbridge originally planned to begin operations in 2017, nearly three years after the station was proposed. While it was delayed as a result of vocal opposition, it won crucial federal approvals and state permits.

Longtime opponents of the station said they were well aware of the hurdles ahead, and while gratified by the FERC’s ruling, they were not celebrating.

”This is the first time any permitting authority in this whole affair has been other than dismissive or minimizing of environmental justice concerns,” said Nathan Phillips, a professor of environmental sciences at Boston University. “It’s by no means a fatal blow to the compressor. But it’s a significant setback to Enbridge, and just gave a huge shot of energy to the opposition.”

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David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.