Ahead of a deadline Monday evening, gas companies and industry groups rushed to tell federal regulators that a controversial Weymouth gas compressor station should be allowed to continue operating despite its rocky history, arguing the site was safe and critical to the country’s energy infrastructure.
Then, around 9:37 a.m. Tuesday morning, the site spewed at least 10,000 standard cubic feet of natural gas into the surrounding neighborhood, its third unplanned release in just eight months.
That incident comes at a crucial moment for the compressor station as federal regulators take a rare second look at its safety protocols and community impact. And it triggered a new wave of condemnations from top Massachusetts politicians, who say the only appropriate course of action is to shutter the site immediately.
“Every accident at the Weymouth Compressor Station endangers the lives and health of local residents and surrounding communities and these so-called blow outs have become a dangerous pattern of releasing harmful gas into the nearby residential neighborhood,” said US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat who represents Weymouth. “It is completely unacceptable to allow Enbridge to continue their operations.”
Environmental activists and prominent politicians have been fighting the site for years, saying it brings unnecessary danger to a densely populated South Shore neighborhood. After the latest release, and amid a federal review launched under a presidential administration that has called environmental justice a priority, activists hope this time the plant will be closed permanently.
Alice Arena, head of the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station group that has long protested the Weymouth site, said she’s “waffling between my regular pessimism and optimism.”
The timing of the incident feels less like coincidence than “karma,” she said.
“It seems as though every time they’ve had an accident it’s been at a tipping point,” Arena said. She pointed to a previous unplanned release last fall, which came just days before the facility was set to begin full operations.
“Instead, they ended up with a shutdown order,” she said wryly. The three gas releases show that operators are too reckless to continue work in the area, she said.
Enbridge, which operates the site, has not yet said exactly how much gas was released into the surrounding area or what caused the incident, but it is required to notify authorities of any amount over 10,000 standard cubic feet. The amount of gas released could prove much larger; two September incidents each triggered the release of hundreds of thousands of standard cubic feet of gas.
“The safety of the facility and surrounding area were not impacted by this occurrence,” said Max Bergeron, a spokesman for Enbridge, adding that the company is continuing to gather information.
Compressor stations are placed along gas pipelines to boost pressure and help the gas travel long distances. The Weymouth site was designed to usher gas through New England for distribution in Maine and Canada.
The compressor station faced political peril long before this week.
After two previous unplanned releases of gas, in September 2020, federal authorities forced the facility to shut down. Regulators authorized the station to resume operations in January.
Then, in February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced it would take another look at safety concerns at the facility — a potential threat to the station’s operating license, and an early signal of how the Biden administration would balance business and environmental concerns. A spokesperson for FERC declined to comment on Tuesday’s incident or the timeline for the commission’s review.
Last week, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren re-introduced the federal COMPRESSOR Act, which would ban the Weymouth station from operating and block new natural gas compressor stations from coming online for pipeline projects.
Both senators called for the site to close after Tuesday morning’s release.
For local leaders, the gas release this week was another reminder of a worrisome threat.
Rebecca Haugh, a town councilor in Weymouth who lives less than half a mile from the site, wasn’t home at the time of the release on Tuesday, but worries her family might be in the case of another release. Living in the industrialized area, she said she has become accustomed to “potent smells every now and then.”
“I should be able to leave my children in my house and feel they’re safe there,” she said. “This is why we’ve been fighting this for the past six years — because of all the residentially dense neighborhoods around during any of these unplanned releases, so many people will be affected.”
A spokesperson for Governor Charlie Baker said the site is under federal oversight, and that the administration urges federal authorities to investigate the incident.
But Baker administration officials have issued a number of permits to the site in recent years over the objections of local and environmental groups, and some activists, including Arena, have called on the governor to do more.
“If you have an accident at that compressor facility — accidents that we see happen all over the country — people cannot escape. There’s no evacuation route. You cannot get out of there,” Arena said. “So what are you gonna do?”