Baker facing mounting pressure on Weymouth gas facility
Governor Charlie Baker, facing mounting political resistance to a proposed South Shore natural gas facility, said Monday that the state has limited authority to support local sentiment to block the project.
“The state does have a role to play, although we play it under federal rules,” Baker said, referring to a labyrinth of permitting processes on both the state and federal level.
Opponents of the compressor station initiative, sited in Weymouth near the Fore River Bridge and Quincy, have urged Baker and state regulators to wield their permitting jurisdiction more aggressively and to stop what they view as a deeply flawed and dangerous proposal. A bipartisan group of South Shore lawmakers plans to meet Tuesday with state environmental protection officials.
“Our goal here is to set the highest standard we possibly can with respect to public safety, the environment, and the coastal questions that are involved in this. But we are going to be complying with federal law,” Baker told reporters at an unrelated State House press event.
The compressor station plan, to build a key link for a natural gas pipeline through New England into Nova Scotia, has sparked a wave of local opposition on the grounds that the project could pose a grave public health risk. Grass-roots activists have pressured the Baker administration to wield its permitting authority to hobble construction.
“The grass roots are very aggressive and well organized, and they have a plan,” said House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat. “There is a lot of pressure to revisit this and have the feds take a look at it. I think [activists have] made their point convincingly, and the pressure’s mounting on all of us.”
A bipartisan State House delegation from the area earlier this year recorded its “strong opposition” to a state agency’s approval of an air quality plan. The state’s US senators, Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, have called for a federal risk assessment. And Democratic gubernatorial candidates, spying a high-impact local issue, have been weighing in with their opposition.
“This is obviously being used now by . . . the Democratic challengers for governor,” said state Senator Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican. “It being used in that political sense, I would say, adds political pressure on the governor.”
O’Connor added, “This has been an issue that we’ve been dealing with for over two years now, and I’m glad to see it gain traction and momentum not only with our candidates for governor, but also with our federal delegation.”
The 7,700 horsepower compressor station is considered a key step in building pipeline capacity into eastern Canada, known as the Atlantic Bridge. Similar stations are centered along interstate pipelines every 40 to 100 miles, cleaning and pressurizing the gas.
Originated under Spectra Energy, the Weymouth project is now under the banner of Enbridge, which merged with Spectra earlier this year and bills itself as the largest energy infrastructure company in North America.
The debate is steeped in politics both local and macro. While projects often wend their way through the intricacies of municipal and state zoning bureaucracies, the Weymouth proposal carries a geopolitical bent because the United States is trying to assert itself in international markets as a supplier of natural gas.
In January, federal energy regulators certified the project, which would add to the capacity of the existing Algonquin gas transmission system.
“We were pleased that we received our first certificate following a comprehensive 23 month review and evaluation from [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission],” said Marylee Hanley, director of stakeholder outreach for Enbridge.
But local political dynamics are also in play. Baker won both Quincy and Weymouth in the 2014 election, and the area is populated by the type of conservative Democratic and unenrolled voters who ensured his victory. Quincy’s mayor, Thomas Koch, is a Democrat but backed Baker three years ago, and Weymouth’s mayor, Robert Hedlund, is a former Republican state senator.
Opponents say the proposed facility’s incinerations and blast zones envelope the Fore River Bridge, dense Quincy and Weymouth neighborhoods, two day-care centers, and four industrial parks. Developers are looking to build, critics argue, on the smallest site with the densest population of any compressor station in the country. They point to compressor station explosions in North Dakota and Pennsylvania as evidence that the sites are dangerous, and should be located far from heavily populated areas. And they worry that the facility would pump more than 40,000 tons of greenhouse gases, complicating the state’s statutorily enshrined emissions reduction goal.
“Our facilities are built to meet or exceed all regulations and requirements,” Hanley said, adding that the expanded capacity would “generate savings for homeowners, businesses, and manufacturers.”
In an April letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the area’s State House delegation wrote that the station’s construction would impose “a severe injustice to the residents who live in immediate and surrounding areas by sharply increasing health risks, jeopardizing their property values, damaging their local economies, and sustaining a perpetual threat to their lives.”
Hanley said the Algonquin system has been operating safely in the region for more than 60 years.