Boston Neighborhood Battles Pipeline Project

(AP Photo/Kori Feener)

Karenna Gore, daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, protests at Spectra Energy's West Roxbury pipeline site in Boston, Wednesday, June 29, 2016. Gore and others tried to block construction work by lying in a trench.


In April, a Spectra Energy natural gas pipeline blew up near the western Pennsylvania town of Greensburg. Houses were damaged and one man was injured, but no one was killed. People miles from the epicenter of the blast felt the shock waves.

Shock waves of a different sort reverberated all the way to Boston, where Spectra has another pipeline project already underway. “The risk here is obvious,” House Democrat Stephen Lynch, a Boston congressman, told the Boston Herald.  “I see disaster on the horizon.”

Cities like Boston frequently store or serve as transshipment points for hazardous materials. A rainbow-painted liquefied natural gas tank that is a local landmark sits next to a major Boston highway, while the nation’s only urban liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal is situated near the city’s international airport. However, unlike the decades-old facilities sited in the early days of the environmental movement, the pipeline currently under construction has unleashed fierce community opposition. It has raised questions about the secretive deliberations behind the decision to downplay the risks associated with siting a natural gas pipeline in a densely populated industrial area.

Hundreds of residents kicked off several days of “People Over Pipelines” protests Friday against several Spectra Energy projects, including the pipeline now being built in the city’s West Roxbury neighborhood. The project continues to raise concerns and safety fears, despite corporate assurances that the project does not pose a risk, and has been targeted by protests and acts of civil disobedience for several years. 

Algonquin Gas Transmission, the Spectra Energy subsidiary constructing the pipeline, maintains that the pipeline is safe. But residents aren’t convinced that it is a smart decision to run a pipeline through a residential neighborhood that is also home to West Roxbury Crushed Stone, a quarry that is the site of regular blasting. So far, years of objections, protests, and legal actions have done little to sway either company or federal officials who have the final say over siting decisions.

Most city and state officials, by contrast, oppose the project, and, according to local activists, Spectra has damaged a water main last year and refused to coordinate with public works officials on the construction matters. Boston officials literally had to come in and mop up to get the taps running again.

There are important economic concerns and environmental issues associated with the West Roxbury pipeline project, but the safety issues are the ones that have galvanized local residents. Two years ago, Algonquin furnished some answers to residents’ concerns about quarry blasts near the pipeline. The company noted that the Massachusetts legislature had passed legislation restricting the quarry from blasting within 500 feet of the pipeline, but otherwise responded evasively to specific questions about possible accident scenarios.

The report contained vague statements such as “safety is our primary focus,” “safety is our top priority,” and “the pipeline will be designed constructed and maintained in a very safe manner.” In case the company’s position wasn’t clear, it added: “The current or future blasting operations at the Quarry will not affect the safety operation and integrity of the Algonquin’s facilities.”

Mark McDonald, an independent natural gas industry consultant, who has posted several videos on the topic, believes that an accident in the neighborhood could be more deadly than the 2010 San Bruno, California pipeline explosion that decimated an 18-block area, killing eight people, destroying about three-dozen homes and damaging many more. He argues that a possible accident in West Roxbury, where the pipeline would convey gas that would be under double the pressure of the San Bruno pipeline, could consume 30 or more blocks in the event of an explosion. He also contends that the type of pipeline planned for the area is usually built in rural or more secluded areas, not in densely populated ones.

Among the allegations in the federal criminal proceedings now underway following the San Bruno accident is that the Pacific Gas and Energy, owner of the pipeline, persuaded federal and state regulators to sanction less-expensive safety testing methods.

McDonald and others assert that it is difficult to believe that an active blasting zone would not have pernicious effects on a underground steel pipeline.  Moreover, the pipeline’s meter and regulating station (which allows the company to monitor the flow of gas) is a potential target for accidents, vandalism, or terrorism, and will sit near a group neighborhood homes.

The West Roxbury pipeline is a new segment along the planned expansion of transmission networks that supplies natural gas from the Appalachian basin to the Northeast.  Three years ago, Algonquin Gas Transmission contracted with National Grid and other energy suppliers to deliver the natural gas. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project last year after an unsuccessful effort by residents and city officials to block takings by eminent domain. A second lawsuit is in the works.

Paul Horn, of the citizens group Resist the Pipeline, says the project sneaked up on residents and local politicians, though West Roxbury is one of Boston’s more politically connected neighborhoods. Algonquin officials conducted a cursory public education process, he says, with some meetings staffed by company public relations officials who could not provide answers about technical matters.

Despite being thwarted on the regulatory and legal front, pipeline opponents have been emboldened by the defeat of another gas pipeline project, the 20-mile Kinder Morgan pipeline, which was to run from Wright, New York near Albany, to the town of Dracut in northeastern Massachusetts. Company officials cited the failure to attract enough utilities to make the project financially viable. But more significantly, the project had raised the ire of environmentalists who relentlessly sounded off, especially about plans to run that pipeline though state forest land.

In Massachusetts, the West Roxbury pipeline has sparked marches, acts of civil disobedience, and participation by environmental celebrities like Karenna Gore, daughter of former vice president Al Gore, who directs the Center for Earth Ethics at New York's

Union Theological Seminary, who climbed into pipeline trenches to hamper construction and was arrested in late June. There is also fresh outrage over a proposal to tax ratepayers to build pipelines. This  “pipeline tax” plan, proposed by GOP Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, is being challenged before the state’s high court.

Horn is particularly worried about what he says is a lack of more concrete action from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He argues that the state’s Democratic Senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, have been “disappointing” in their failure to speak out about the minimal consultation between FERC, local elected officials, and residents.  It’s a egregious oversight, Horn argues, especially since one of the FERC commissioners, Cheryl LaFleur (who was chair at the time of the Algonquin decision) is a former National Grid executive.

The decision to construct a pipeline through a residential area that already hosts its fair share of industrial activity bears further scrutiny, and calls for better processes to ensure that residents and local public officials get timely information about plans that pose big risks to those who must live with the consequences. “Ultimately you have to point the finger at Congress for giving the FERC [nearly] unlimited power it has to do this kind of work,” Horn says.

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