South Shore lawmakers urge Baker to reject natural gas station air permits
More than a dozen South Shore lawmakers and the mayor of Weymouth are pleading with Governor Charlie Baker to reject air quality permits for a natural gas compressor station planned along the Fore River basin, saying he may be the last hope to address a “dangerous precedent.”
Baker and environmental regulators in his executive branch are expected to rule by Friday on the air permits, a decision that both supporters and opponents of the proposed facility describe as pivotal to the project’s future. More than many other elected officials, Baker has been an advocate for natural gas as public officials grapple with energy system impacts on climate change and ensuring safe, reliable, and affordable energy sources.
The compressor station would be located on a small parcel on the banks of the Fore River, which bisects Quincy and Weymouth, in a densely populated area with a long history of industrial usage.
In a letter to Baker on Wednesday, Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund said the federal Natural Gas Act leaves state and local authorities with “diminished power” to protect natural resources and the health of citizens, but said the governor through the state Department of Environmental Protection can use the state’s authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reject air quality permits needed by the project’s proponents.
“Governor, one of our last hopes to prevent the risks of this proposed compressor station is you,” Hedlund, a former Republican state senator, wrote. “Please do not allow the natural gas companies to expose the residents of Weymouth, Hingham, Quincy, and Braintree to even greater quantities of cancer-causing toxic air pollutants. Thank you for considering the health effects of this project before rejecting its lethal consequences to people we represent.”
The planned station has generated extensive local feedback and opposition, and Senator Patrick O’Connor, a Republican from Weymouth, said Thursday that with the exception of the natural gas fires in the Merrimack Valley last September, he believes “this is the single most vocal local issue” in Massachusetts.
“Massachusetts has been the first to make many great strides in health care, civil rights, and environmental justice. The siting of a compressor station on one of the smallest and exposed parcels of land must not be one of the precedents that this Commonwealth establishes,” four senators and 10 state representatives wrote in their own letter to Baker on Wednesday. They associated “profound public safety, health and environmental risks” with natural gas compressor stations.
A health impact assessment ordered by Baker in 2017 was released Jan. 4 and predicted “no substantial changes in health from direct exposures from the station itself with the exception of sound levels during construction.” The study of likely impacts of the Enbridge Energy project was conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council after Baker charged the state Department of Public Health and the state Department of Environmental Protection with preparing a health impact assessment.
Citing the potential for the compressor station to lead to elevated stress levels and “mental health issues,” the impact statement predicted “negative changes may be possible through other mechanisms, such as an increased perception of risk in the surrounding areas related to perceived pollution levels and less comfort with using nearby outdoor space.”
And while recommending the installation of an air quality monitor and the dissemination of radon testing information, it found “air emissions and sound do not exceed health-protective regulatory standards and guidelines with the exception of estimated sound levels during construction.”
However, in their letter, the lawmakers asked Baker to reject air quality permits and said there is “more than enough evidence to prove that this location is inappropriate for the siting of a natural gas compressor station.” The legislators said current levels of formaldehyde and benzene, as measured during the health impact review, showed the Fore River Basin is already above recommended state limits for the carcinogens.
The health impact statement also found residents of Braintree, Quincy, and Weymouth already experience higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular conditions, compared to the state average.
Asked about the new letters to the governor, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs issued a statement calling the health impact statement work an “important next step.”
“The Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s work with state agencies to analyze health and air quality conditions in the Fore River area is an important next step and the administration appreciates this effort,” said EEA spokesman Peter Lorenz. “While the federal government has the primary jurisdiction over siting of interstate pipeline projects, we will continue to engage stakeholders and local leaders before reaching our decision on several outstanding permits and approvals.”
The project requires state air, wetlands, and waterways permits from the state. The Department of Environmental Protection has issued wetlands and waterways permits, which are under appeal. The Office of Coastal Zone Management is also undertaking a “federal consistency review” and that decision deadline is currently under a 30-day extension, according to a state official, to allow MassDEP to move forward with appeal proceedings.
Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station plan a rally next to the proposed compressor station site at 50 Bridge St. on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“If Governor Baker’s DEP denies this Determination (the step before the granting of the full permit), let’s show our thanks to the Governor for setting the correct tone for his department,” the group wrote in an action alert e-mail on Wednesday. “If Governor Baker’s DEP approves the Determination, let’s remind the Governor who he serves — we the citizens of the Basin and the South Shore and NOT the gas industry.”
Spectra Energy, which merged with Enbridge after proposing the station, has said the Weymouth compressor station will boost natural gas transmission, with clear and odorless emissions that are monitored to ensure compliance with state and federal standards. Mufflers and insulation materials will minimize noise levels to about 55 decibels, the company says, noting freeway driving at 50 feet away can be about 75 decibels.
The Weymouth station is one of hundreds along the US natural gas pipeline system, according to Spectra, and will help bring more natural gas to New England, helping to keep energy prices competitive.