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Ideas | Aimee Ortiz

In Weymouth, echoes of Flint

Protesters held signs at the entrance to the Fore River Bridge, in Weymouth.
Protesters held signs at the entrance to the Fore River Bridge, in Weymouth. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff /File 2016)

WEYMOUTH — FOUR UNDEVELOPED ACRES on a peninsula in the northern part of this town have become a battlefield, pitting environmental activists against a massive energy company.

Area residents, backed by leading public health scientists and doctors, are standing up to Enbridge, a $126 billion Texas-based energy giant, trying to block the company from building a gas compressor station.

The site, opponents argue, is too small, too polluted, and too close to too many dangers to safely accommodate the compressor — especially in a state still reeling from the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley last September, which killed an 18-year-old and destroyed several homes.

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The fight over the Weymouth compressor has drawn high profile experts, including Dr. Philip Landrigan, who spent 15 years as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and is the current director of Boston College’s Global Public Health Program.

“The largely blue-collar communities surrounding the Fore River Basin are economically depressed,” Landrigan wrote in a statement released in early May. He called the construction of a gas compressor at this location “deeply unjust and a flagrant example of environmental injustice” in an area where people of color comprise 37 percent of the population.

But company officials say the compressor will meet the prevailing environmental standards. They may have a case.

And that raises the question: As we rely more and more on natural gas as a bridge between the dirtiest fuels and a cleaner energy future, are we doing enough to ensure that we make the transition intelligently?

THE WEYMOUTH CONTROVERSY began four years ago when Enbridge identified this empty field as an ideal spot for a compressor station.

These things are massive industrial affairs, typically built in rural and remote areas. Stations in Agawam and Charlton, for example, sit on 41 acres and 34 acres, respectively.

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Distributed roughly every 50 to 70 miles along a main line, compressor stations are a key component of pipeline infrastructure; they use powerful machinery to repressurize gas to force it through the pipe to its destination.

The Weymouth station would be just one piece of Enbridge’s Atlantic Bridge project, which, when completed, will distribute high-pressure gas more than 1,000 miles, from New York to Maine and into the Canadian Maritimes.

The Weymouth station is slated to include a huge 7,700 horsepower natural gas-fired turbine-driven compressor, which would pressurize gas up to 250 times higher than the levels that led to the Merrimack Valley disaster (1,500 psi vs. 6 psi).

Enbridge claims that the Weymouth station does not pose significant hazards. Spokeswoman Marylee Hanley said in a statement that when built, it will “meet or exceed federal safety standards and regulations.” She points to the Algonquin system, which she says has been operating without incident for more than 60 years. (Algonquin Gas Transmission is a subsidiary of Spectra Energy, which merged with Enbridge in 2017.)

Members of the Greater Boston chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (GBPSR) disagree. They argue that all pipeline infrastructure is just an accident waiting to happen. Over the past five years, notes GBPSR Chair Dr. Matt Bivens, the US has experienced one major compressor station or pipeline explosion every year.

AN EXPLOSION AT the Weymouth site would be devastating: Within a roughly one-mile radius of the proposed location are six schools with more than 1,000 students, elderly housing, nursing homes, and a mental health facility. Within a half-mile radius are 964 households, including several in the 786-foot “potential impact radius.” The site is also near the recently revamped Fore River Bridge, which carries about 30,000 cars daily.

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To demonstrate the impact of a two-minute gas leak at the compressor, Bivens borrowed graphics created by an air-hazard modeling program jointly developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Just add a spark and you’d have an inferno, he says, one that could cause second-degree burns to mortality for people nearby.

Worse, if the Weymouth station were to explode or catch fire, it could block Route 3A, impeding first responders, according to Bivens.

Bivens also worries about rising sea levels: Current storm and surge maps show that the proposed site is in a hurricane flood zone. What would happen if this sensitive yet powerful equipment was deluged during a storm?

In short, the GBPSR report states that it is “alarming that plans to build this highly flammable, high-pressure gas infrastructure in such an inappropriate location have advanced this far.”

BUT EXPLOSIONS POSE just one of many risks to the community.

Carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene could be released into the air as a byproduct of the compressor station’s massive machinery.

That’s the last thing Weymouth residents need.

For decades, industries here have pumped contaminants into the air, soil, and water. A Proctor & Gamble plant turned the river into a bubbly stew. General Dynamics’s Fore River Shipyard reportedly spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of heating oil into the soil. Electric generating plants, one built by Boston Edison in 1925, no doubt introduced a broad range of pollutants.

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When those businesses shuttered, residents lived among the toxins and heavy particles left behind. According to a 2018 Patriot Ledger article, they suspect it’s making them sick.

The epidemiology bears that out: The population in the Fore River Basin already has a high prevalence of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a type of lung disease that leads to scarring of the lungs. Children in the area have the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the Commonwealth — a condition associated with air pollution by the EPA. And the residents of Quincy, Braintree, and Weymouth have high hospital admissions rates for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, believed to be caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter.

Nearby are Quincy Point and Germantown — two low-income neighborhoods so plagued by pollution-related health issues that they were designated by the state as “environmental justice” areas, and per state policy, should receive special protections.

State officials acknowledge that on certain days, formaldehyde and benzene levels exceed standards set by the Department of Environment Protection, but also claim that the compressor station’s emissions would comply with all existing standards and guidelines.

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And that’s precisely the problem: Some public health experts argue that the state’s standards are too low. “What we used to consider a safe level is really now known to be dangerous,” said Doug Dockery, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health.

“What we used to think of as normal exposure in our everyday life, now we consider hazardous.”

COMPANIES LIKE ENBRIDGE rely on the letter of the law to protect them from environmental adversaries. Enbridge spokeswoman Hanley says that the health impact assessment jointly issued by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health “concluded the proposed Weymouth compressor station will have no adverse health or environmental impacts on the surrounding communities.”

But some agencies could be walking back from that assessment. In February, MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen called for a “complete and independent analysis” of public safety risks in the event of a fire or explosion at the compressor station.

Speaking to WBUR, he also said the project did not fit within the state’s green energy ambitions: “It’s honestly hard to see how the siting of this facility would be consistent with the larger energy goals of my agency, and our desire to move strongly away from fossil fuels into renewables.”

Draisen, Bevins, and GBPSR have strong allies: Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, Congressman Stephen Lynch, the mayors of Weymouth, Quincy, and Braintree, and 14 state legislators stand in opposition to the project. Activists would like Governor Charlie Baker to step up.

But Baker has claimed that he has little control over the permitting process. Appearing on Boston Public Radio in 2017, he said the state “has a minor role to play, but in the end, if the federal government believes that certain energy capacity decisions with respect to transmission are in the national interest, it’s their call.”

In fact, several state reviews and appeals are pending, including the consideration of wetlands and Chapter 91 Waterways permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Responding to a request for comment, Peter Lorenz, communications director for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, echoed Enbridge’s statement that any emissions from the station would meet all standards and said the state “continues to conduct other required reviews under the federal Natural Gas Act, and will continue to prioritize the Commonwealth’s public safety and the proper environmental protections in reviewing all proposed projects.”

Baker administration officials also add that while the Commonwealth did not decide on the location of the compressor station, it did complete “a comprehensive and science-based evaluation” before approving the air quality permit.

And yet, just last week, an air-permit hearing was abruptly halted when it was discovered that MassDEP had delayed disclosing important air monitoring data at the site in question.

The Fore River Bridge, left, and this existing plant are near the land proposed to be the site of a gas compressing station
The Fore River Bridge, left, and this existing plant are near the land proposed to be the site of a gas compressing station(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

THE WEYMOUTH CONTROVERSY is heating up at a time when Americans are questioning the use of natural gas as an energy source. Extracting it often requires hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a controversial water-intensive process that may cause earthquakes and release toxic chemicals into rivers, soil, and the air. Aside from the known harms of fracking, a recent preliminary report by an independent consultant concluded that Massachusetts is underprepared for a natural gas disaster.

Meanwhile, the global concentration of carbon dioxide — the most potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere — has skyrocketed to its highest point in the last 800,000 years.

Considering that the transport and burning of natural gas releases considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, rising sea levels are threatening our coastline, and the state is still grappling with climate change, it’s reasonable to wonder: Should we continue to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure?

The project also raises questions about how we, as a nation, treat disadvantaged Americans: “The Weymouth compressor poses a really unjust health burden on the surrounding community, which is already at increased risk from these hazardous air pollutants,” said Dockery, who has dedicated the past 45 years to studying the effects of air pollution. “And without any compensating benefits, asking these communities to suffer from these irreversible hazards really cannot be justified.”

Having spent his career focused on toxic chemicals and their effect on children, Landrigan concurs. Speaking at a Boston College press conference, he drew a comparison between the compressor station and another well known public safety incident: the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Landrigan, whose research on lead helped get it banned from gasoline and paint in the 1970s, and who served as an advisor on the Flint disaster, said he’s seeing the same scenario unfold in the Fore River Basin: ”[T]here’s an unresponsive state government that is refusing to look at the public health hazards, is refusing to look at the safety hazards.”

He adds: “This is Flint on the Fore River.”


Aimee Ortiz can be reached at aimee.ortiz@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.