Lynch: Shut down compressor following Friday incident

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BOSTON (SHNS) – Congressman Stephen Lynch demanded the “immediate suspension” of operations at a compressor station in Weymouth, arguing that significant damage or injury could have occurred during a Friday incident at the site when workers released an unspecified amount of natural gas.

On the same day that a consulting group highlighted gaps in a health assessment key to the energy project’s advancement, Lynch asked federal authorities to step in and shut the site down.

“This misguided and dangerous project presents an imminent public safety threat to the residents of Weymouth and its surrounding communities and must be subject to extensive state and federal oversight before any continuation in station operations,” Lynch, whose district includes the surrounding areas, wrote in a Monday letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Energy giant Enbridge, which sought the facility as a lynchpin in its Atlantic Bridge natural gas pipeline, alerted state officials Friday that a sump tank gasket at the compressor failed, prompting workers to trigger the emergency shutdown system and vent gas.

Under state regulations, the company is required to notify officials of any unplanned gas release that exceeds 10,000 cubic feet.

“Line pressure gas was venting to atmosphere at ground level,” the company wrote, according to a copy of the letter the town of Weymouth posted online, as first reported by WBUR. “To avoid an unsafe environment for station personnel, the Emergency Shutdown System (ESD) was manually triggered by onsite personnel.”

Enbridge did not say what volume of natural gas it ultimately discharged, writing that the emergency system has a volume of 265,000 cubic feet and that it also released 35 pounds of volatile organic compounds.

An Enbridge spokesman declined to specify the amount of gas vented last week.

“The Weymouth Compressor Station is currently undergoing testing and calibrating of piping and equipment, and on September 11, 2020 at approximately 9 AM, we experienced an issue with a piece of equipment,” the spokesman, Max Bergeron, replied when asked about the volume released and the cause of the incident. “In order to maintain a safe worksite, personnel on site rapidly initiated the isolation and controlled venting of natural gas from the compressor station. We notified state and local officials, and we are working to address the issue and are proceeding with safety as our priority.”

Bergeron said “intermittent planned venting” will continue to take place through Oct. 1 as part of the testing and calibration underway at the site.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, a state agency at the center of project permitting, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.

The Friday incident sparked immediate criticism from environmental groups and Fore River Basin residents who have been fighting the facility for years.

“This could have easily been a mass-casualty event,” Lynch said in a statement Monday night. “Obviously, the proper safety protocols were not followed and the gravest fears of Weymouth residents and the many opponents of this compressor station have been justified.”

Amid opposition from local leaders and lawmakers, the Baker administration approved air quality permits for the project in January 2019, with Gov. Charlie Baker saying at the time that he “basically had no choice” due to federal rules surrounding permitting and the results of an independent health assessment he ordered two years earlier.

That health impact assessment, conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, concluded there would be “no substantial changes in health” as a result of the station’s operations.

The MAPC later came out in opposition to the project based on safety and environmental concerns that were outside the scope of its analysis. Last year, after the DEP revealed that the assessment was based on incomplete data, the regional planning agency tapped a consulting firm to review how closely the study adhered to international standards.

In an 89-page report published Monday, London firm Public Health by Design concluded that much of MAPC’s assessment was “in line with what is generally considered good international practice,” but highlighted several areas that could have been stronger.

The health study was limited by a narrow scope, consultants found, because the Baker administration instructed MAPC to consider only air quality-related health impacts and not public safety or climate change, which would fall to state agencies.

Public Health by Design said MAPC could have taken several steps to more forcefully highlight the gaps created by a constrained view, such as requesting a broader scope for its own review, recommending more extensive analysis in its final report, or even withdrawing from the contract.

“In the future, we will be less likely to undertake a project where the scope is artificially constrained by directive, time, or money, unless we can adequately ensure through other means that all relevant issues will be analyzed,” MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen wrote in a Monday post alongside the report.

Another challenge consultants identified is a “long-standing” practice at the DEP to consider the air quality impacts of a potential project in isolation — in other words, only the changes a facility would cause — and not in conjunction with existing pollutant levels.

Doing so, the international consultants found, is “not aligned with standard practice in (health impact assessment), where background/baseline levels of air pollution must be considered when assessing and rating impacts.”

Draisen said MAPC will consider cumulative exposure health effects in the future and will also “encourage MassDEP to reconsider its own practices.”

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