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In Newton, leaks in gas lines are a never-ending challenge

Nathan Phillips, a professor in the Earth and Environment department at Boston University, measures a gas leak emanating from a street lamp in Newtonville. SHAUN ROBINSON
Nathan Phillips, a professor in the Earth and Environment department at Boston University, measured a gas leak emanating from a street lamp in Newtonville. SHAUN ROBINSONCONTRIBUTED PHOTO (Custom credit)

Every morning, Louise Kittredge takes a walk along Albemarle Road in Newton. And every morning, unless there’s a strong breeze, she smells gas.

The first time last fall Kittredge noticed the leak she called a gas emergency hotline, she said, and a repair truck came out to the site. But the leak wasn’t fixed. It was too far away from any buildings to pose an imminent danger, she recalled a repairman telling her.

“I know they have a whole system of priorities for leaks,” Kittredge said of the gas utility companies. “But I wish that every leak were a priority.”

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There were more than 920 natural gas leaks left unrepaired in Newton last year — more than in any other city or town in Massachusetts except Boston — according to the most recent gas company data analyzed by the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a nonprofit in Cambridge. Another 429 leaks were repaired, the data show.

National Grid prioritizes which leaks it will repair based on the leaks’ proximity to a building, the percentage of gas in the surrounding air, and whether or not the leak is trapped under pavement, a company spokesperson said in a statement.

Massachusetts has one of the oldest gas distribution systems in the country, the spokesperson said, and repairs will come with a hefty price tag.

”The challenge is balancing the need to invest in our gas system while, at the same time, maintaining stable gas rates for our customers,” the spokesperson said. “Over the last several years we have invested significantly in our gas networks to enhance safety and reliability and have satisfactorily met or exceeded our obligations under our work plans.”

Most of Newton’s 305 miles of gas mains — about 80 percent — are susceptible to leaking, a National Grid spokesperson said at a meeting Dec. 9 with the City Council’s Public Facilities Committee.

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The company provides gas service for about 27,800 residential and commercial accounts in the city, according to slides at the meeting. About 60 percent of the city’s gas mains are made of cast iron, the spokesperson said, material that in some locations dates back more than 100 years.

Local advocates say Newton’s exceptionally high number of leaks — which can be hard to spot but are easy to smell emanating from manhole covers, patches of grass, and even street lamps — put people and the environment at risk. The solution, they say, is to not just repair existing leaks but to transition the city’s energy grid over to renewable sources that don’t rely on old technology.

“We need to avoid rebuilding, basically, a 19th-century infrastructure,” said Nathan Phillips, a professor in the Earth and Environment department at Boston University who lives in Auburndale. “Instead, we need to pivot toward the heating of the 21st century.”

The principal component of natural gas is methane, which is significantly more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Natural gas leaks account for about 8 percent of Newton’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the city’s 2019 Citizen Climate Action Plan.

“That’s huge,” Ward 2 City Councilor Emily Norton said at the meeting Dec. 9. “It’s a big, big problem, and we haven’t wrapped our heads and arms around it yet.”

Methane also can be explosive, said Dominic Nicholas, director of the Home Energy Efficiency Team, or HEET, in an interview. Last year, a gas leak in Brookline caused an explosion that popped off manhole covers and damaged buildings. In 2018, Lawrence and surrounding towns were rocked by gas explosions and fires.

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A National Grid spokesperson said the company is required to respond to all reports of gas odor within an hour and on average responds within about 22 minutes.

The most dangerous type of leak is a so-called Grade 1, which is defined in a 2014 state law as an existing or likely hazard to people or property. Gas companies are required to repair these leaks immediately.

There were 141 Grade 1 leaks reported in Newton as of Nov. 30 of last year, a National Grid spokesperson said at the committee meeting. In 2019 there were 209, and the year before there were 193.

Gas leaks also can be classified as Grade 2, a likely future hazard that must be repaired within a year, or Grade 3, which is considered non-hazardous and not required to be fixed. A leak’s grade is based on how much of a hazard it is to people or property, not necessarily how much gas it’s releasing.

David Zeek, gas leaks lead for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said many Grade 1 and 2 gas leaks are repaired every year, but many Grade 3 leaks are not. “The Grade 3 leaks just kind of float along,” he said. “This has been the story year to year to year — that we are not making real progress fixing the gas leaks.”

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Gas companies are required, however, to repair Grade 3 leaks that are disproportionately harmful to the environment. Newton has more of these Grade 3 “super-emitter” leaks than any other community in the state, according to National Grid data posted on Twitter by Ward 2 City Councilor Emily Norton .

A spokesperson for National Grid said at the meeting the company repairs Grade 3 leaks of “significant environmental impact” within one to two years based on the leak’s size. Regardless of the grade, “super-emitter” leaks are defined as those with a rectangular footprint larger than 2,000 square feet.

“It’s shocking that we are at the end of the natural life of most of these infrastructure systems, and people didn’t really prepare,” Ellie Goldberg, a member of Newton’s chapter of the national environmentalist group Mothers Out Front, said in an interview. “What’s out of sight is out of mind.”

One way to spot potential gas leaks is to read the “dig safe” marks spray-painted on many Newton streets, Phillips said. Gas lines are usually mapped in yellow with the letter “G” and a code indicating which material the pipe below is made of — CI for cast iron, S for steel and PL for plastic. Cast iron and steel pipes are older and more prone to leaking, he said, and plastic is used for new pipe replacements today.

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Newton’s Department of Public Works meets with National Grid once a month to coordinate gas leak repairs, Shawna Sullivan, the department’s chief of staff, said in an interview. The city plans which streets it will repave at least a year in advance, she said, and asks utility companies to make their repairs at the same time.

In the past four years National Grid completed 31 gas main replacement projects in coordination with Newton, the company’s spokesperson said, installing about 6 miles of new pipe. The company repaired about 430 leaks in the city last year, according to HEET’s data analysis.

Sullivan said Newton receives daily reports from National Grid about the repairs crews are working on.

“National Grid is in the city of Newton, I would say, almost every day working on their infrastructure,” she said. “They do work with us — sometimes not as quickly as everyone would like — but they definitely work hard to provide pretty good customer service, and they’re very responsive when we call.”

Phillips said he thinks gas leaks should be addressed with a “triage and transition” strategy, where the most potent leaks — the so-called “super-emitters” — are repaired as soon as possible while the city’s natural gas network is gradually replaced with a renewable form of energy.

HEET is developing one alternative to try and repurpose existing gas pipes as pieces of an individual geothermal energy network, or “GeoMicroDistric,” powered by heat pumps. Earlier this year, Boston officials backed a proposal to install this heating system at an old hospital site in Mattapan.

Zeek, of the Sierra Club, said as advocates push to transition off of gas it’s important to remember how replacements can be prohibitively expensive. As the gas customer base shrinks, he said, it’s likely under-resourced communities — who continue to rely on gas — will pick up the tab for repairs to the entire system.

Massachusetts gas customers will need to pay nearly $9 billion over the next 20 years to replace aging pipes, HEET estimated in a report last year.

“When we replace pipes today, we are installing pipes in the ground that will still have value in 2050,” Zeek said. “So we’re stuck between repairing gas leaks, a process that’s ineffective, and replacing the pipes, which invests in a future that we don’t want.”

Norton, the Ward 2 councilor, said at the meeting Dec. 9 there is much more work to be done to address the city’s gas leaks.

“It’s not good for us to walk down the street and inhale gas fumes,” she said. “And we do on a regular basis.”

Shaun Robinson can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.