BOSTON — Requesting a public health assessment and thorough airing of public safety concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker has directed state agencies to investigate issues raised by opponents of a controversial natural gas compressor station planned along the Fore River in North Weymouth.
In a letter dated July 14 and released by Baker's office on Monday, Baker said his administration would examine claims about project impacts, gather public health data, and facilitate the presentation to the federal government of public safety concerns. And while he reiterated that the "primary decisions" about the project will be made by the federal government, Baker said he's committed to ensuring that community concerns are "heard fully."
"We recognize the serious concerns that have been raised by many, including constituents in your town and neighboring communities, regarding a proposed natural gas compressor station to be sited along the Fore River," Baker wrote in a letter to Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund, a former state senator who has called the federal review of the project "a rigged process."
The area where Spectra Energy-Enbridge has proposed its compressor station is located near neighborhoods in North Weymouth and abuts other historically industrialized areas both on the Weymouth and Quincy sides of the Fore River. Opponents have been prodding Baker, who has backed added natural gas capacity, to join elected officials who are against the project and the project's vetting has unfolded amid regular calls for additional renewable energy sources.
Spectra Energy says gas turbines are common across the globe and 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 U.S. natural gas pipeline system, according to Spectra, and will help bring more natural gas to New England, helping to keep energy prices competitive.
Under Baker's plan, the results of a formal public health assessment will be shared with the mayor's office before the state Department of Environmental Protection releases any air permits sought by project proponents, Baker wrote. The assessment will "document the current background air levels at the site and the current health status of the community" and will take into account projected air quality impacts of the proposed project, according to the governor.
Baker is also directing state Public Safety Secretary Daniel Bennett and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton to work with Hedlund's office to "facilitate an opportunity for the public to bring their concerns" about public safety threats directly to the federal government, specifically the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
"I believe the federal regulators should hear firsthand — and then address — the concerns raised by community members," Baker wrote.
Hedlund applauded Baker's directives and said he has spoken with Baker and Beaton in recent weeks "about how their state agencies can better protect local residents than [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] has at any time during this process."
Hedlund added, "No community has ever waged this aggressive and pro-active a legal and grassroots fight against such a proposed facility. The Town has filed lawsuits in Dedham, Boston, and Washington, DC. We are fighting the project in state court, Federal court, and before several environmental agencies. We know it's the wrong project in the wrong location."
Baker also wrote that the project site is "susceptible to flooding and waves during storm events" and said he is directing the state Office of Coastal Zone Management, which is reviewing the project's safety and reliability under coastal storm conditions, to request additional information from the project's sponsors. The governor wrote that he hopes to "achieve a conclusive and definitive understanding of what the specific flooding and inundation risks are and what potential effects of future sea level rise may be given the design life of the facility."
The governor concluded, "The Commonwealth finds itself at an energy crossroads. As older power generators retire, we must diversify the state's energy portfolio. This means both pursuing new sources of renewable energy and expanding our natural gas capacity. While we continue to believe that this multi-pronged strategy is vital to controlling the costs of energy, providing reliability, and protecting the Commonwealth's environment, we also understand the importance of weighing all of the potential impacts on local communities."
Weymouth resident Andrea Honore, who has been visiting Baker's office regularly to highlight her opposition to the project, said the directives ordered by Baker were "wonderful" but cautioned that project opponents should remain vigilant.
"Further study is so desperately needed especially considering the location of the site and the unprecedented proximity to humans," Honore wrote, reacting to Baker's announcement in the form of a letter to the governor. "While your acknowledgement of constituent concerns and the plans for additional study are fantastic, it doesn't mean the compressor is dead. Spectra/Enbridge will not take any project delays lying down. There are billions of dollars to be made and shareholders to keep happy. I'm thrilled, however with your letter publicly stating a plan to address the very real issues regarding the compressor proposal, and laying out the steps your administration will take to ensure the protection of citizens."
Thanking Baker, Honore said Monday might be the last time she sits in Baker's lobby to call attention to the issue.
Hedlund said the additional information sought by Baker "could set the project" or "even doom the project," noting a public health assessment derailed Clean Harbor's proposed incinerator on the Fore River. But the mayor added that "we cannot forget that FERC and their rigged process of allowing big utility companies whatever they want is a creation of Washington-not Beacon Hill. FERC does not shoot down pipeline, it only rubber stamps them."