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University Hosts Panel on Proposed Natural Gas Project

The Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) hosted a press conference at Boston College in opposition to a proposed natural gas compressor on May 13. The compressor, which is set to be built in Weymouth, Mass., has sparked resistance from both local community groups and public health organizations.

Compressor stations maintain natural gas flow through pipelines and are typically placed every 50 to 100 miles. The project has been proposed by the Houston-based natural gas transmission company Spectra Energy, which has since merged with—and taken the name of—Enbridge, a Canadian energy company.

Phil Landrigan, the director of BC’s Global Public Health and the Common Good program, a member of PSR, and BC ’63, began the conference by introducing the topic and its connection to the University. He first emphasized the inequalities underpinning public health crises, tying the field into BC’s mission of social justice.

“Diseases never spread evenly, and populations are distributed unevenly,” he said. “It’s worse for some people [and] not so bad for others, and those patterns are driven by political, social, and economic factors. The mission of our educational program is to teach our students both of those things.”

He also mentioned the efforts of the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health—the research arm of the program—to study pollution. The observatory’s goal is to produce several reports each year about the topic for consumption by both the general public and policymakers.

Before closing, Landrigan drew parallels between the possible risks of the compressor station and the Flint, Mich., water crisis, going as far as to dub it “Flint on the Fall River.” The community surrounding the site, according to Landrigan, is over 40 percent minority, generally low-income, and already suffers from high rates of environmental pollution.

“The gas is doing nothing for American energy independence because this gas is not going to be used here,” Landrigan said. “It’s going to go to Canadian Maritimes and into Europe. The profit certainly doesn’t stay here—it goes to Texas. What stays here is the danger, the risk, and the environmental degradation.”

The panel featured Matt Bivans, chair of the Greater Boston PSR chapter and a disaster management specialist; Doug Dockery, a professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health; and Alice Arena, executive director of Fall River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS).

Landrigan said the conference was convened to express opposition on grounds of “medicine, public health, and social justice” and to summarize PSR’s latest report on the matter, titled “Flammable, High-Pressure Industry in a Populated Coastal Flood Zone?” Overall, the panelists touched on four main concerns: explosions, air pollution, cancer, and flooding.

Bivans primarily focused on the physical location of the site, which he argued is both an outlier—most other stations are in rural areas, he said—and uniquely dangerous, given the residential and industrial land nearby.

The area hosts the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority sewage pump station and is adjacent to the Fore River Bridge, which carries 32,000 commuters a day, according to Bivans. Other neighboring industrial infrastructure includes an oil terminal, a chemical plant, two power plants, and a water treatment facility, he said. Bivans and the report also warned of danger to local residents—there are over 964 households within half a mile and a nursing home, mental health facility, and several schools within 1.2 miles.

“We consider it highly doubtful that enough emergency transportation could be available to make a timely evacuation of school children, senior citizens in elderly housing, mental health patients, and nursing home patients if an accident were to occur at the site of the proposed compressor station,” the report said.

Bivans closed by detailing the high chance of flooding in the area.

“That peninsula is underwater under even the smallest hurricanes,” he said. “You shouldn’t be building anything there.”

Dockery spoke to evolving standards for air pollution, suggesting that even current standards are likely too lenient and compared them to previously accepted health risks, such as smoking or asbestos.

“There really is no safe level for these hazardous chemicals,” Dockery said. “And this is important because the community air pollution levels for these hazardous chemicals in the surrounding communities are already above the [Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection] standards for protecting public health.”

Like Landrigan, Dockery pointed out that there was no “greater good” on the table for Weymouth locals, as both the profits and the energy itself would be exported elsewhere. On top of those downsides, the plant will only employ two people and is likely to lower property values, Dockery said.

Arena walked the audience through the steps that FRRACS and the affected municipalities have taken to oppose the station’s approval and construction. She said that the town governments of Weymouth, Quincy, Braintree, and Hingham have all been involved with appealing the air quality permits obtained by Enbridge.

She also detailed the history of the station, accusing Enbridge of downplaying its size and impact in order to begin proceedings. She also cast doubt on the state’s Health Impact Assessment and criticized the government’s nonresponsiveness.

“Today, you have no safety report, [you] have no contact with the towns, you have no comment from Governor [Charlie] Baker on the two reports that are missing,” Arena said. “And we have absolutely no coastal resiliency report for an area that is in a [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood zone.”

Featured Image by Jack Miller / Heights Editor

May 24, 2019