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Baker approves air permits for natural gas project in Weymouth

In a decision blasted by South Shore lawmakers as reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration on Friday approved air quality permits for a natural gas compressor station in Weymouth, with state environmental regulators concluding the Enbridge Energy project conforms with air pollution regulations.

The project will support natural gas capacity upgrades and the expansion of a gas transmission pipeline system that runs from Mahwah, N.J., to Beverly, for transportation and deliveries on the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline system. Collectively, it’s referred to as the Atlantic Bridge Project, which includes the siting of the compressor station, and which received federal approval in January 2017.

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“This reckless and irresponsible decision is harmful to the health, safety and wellbeing of residents of Weymouth and the entire South Shore,” Representative James Murphy, Democrat of Weymouth, said in a statement released after state energy officials disclosed their decision just before 5 p.m. Friday.

“Generations of residents living in the Fore River basin have been burdened by industrial pollutants. These industries once supplied much-needed jobs to the area, while simultaneously poisoning the earth, water, and air,” added Representative Ronald Mariano, Democrat of Quincy. “Now, Enbridge plans to expose current and future generations of Quincy and Weymouth residents to a new source of toxins, all in the name of padding the profits of a multinational energy corporation. With today’s decision, Enbridge is one step closer to succeeding.”

While a disappointment to lawmakers, mayors, and many residents of the South Shore, the administration’s decision advances a project sought by the natural gas industry and is in keeping with the Republican governor’s all-of-the-above approach to energy resources and ensuring a reliable supply of power to the state.

Fourteen legislators and the mayors of Weymouth, Braintree, and Quincy this week urged Baker to deny the air permits, saying a state-authorized health impact review had noted current levels of formaldehyde and benzene in the project’s Fore River basin are already above recommended state limits for the carcinogens.

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But that same assessment, ordered by Baker in 2017 and conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, also predicted “no substantial changes in health from direct exposures from the station itself with the exception of sound levels during construction.”

A spokesman for Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton cited the health impact statement in a statement released after the Department of Environmental Protection approved the air quality permits.

“The Health Impact Assessment (HIA) found that anticipated air emissions from the Weymouth project would meet all applicable standards and guidelines, and would not directly cause adverse health effects to the community,” spokesman Peter Lorenz said in a statement. “Massachusetts 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.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the siting of the compressor station in January 2017, state officials noted, and the project still must clear other state reviews and acquire other state permits.

State officials cited changes to the project’s approval plans, including restrictions to mitigate noise and dust associated with construction; enhanced leak detection requirements; additional sound mitigation investments and limitations on hours of maintenance and operation of equipment; additional post-construction sound impact testing requirements; and a requirement for a decommissioning plan.

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If the permit is appealed, an appeal decision and a final permit must be issued by June 28.

Republican Senator Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth said his hometown “has been fighting the proposal for five years through local activism, legislation, and our legal system. With each year, more and more people joined the fight because they knew this proposal would impact the entire Commonwealth, not just Weymouth. This decision sets a dangerous precedent for facilities like this to be built anywhere in the Commonwealth, and beyond.”

Said Representative Joan Meschino, Democrat of Hull, “I am disappointed that the Commonwealth has issued an air quality permit with complete disregard for the overwhelming evidence of the dangerous and detrimental impacts of this project.”