The journey in the fight to end burning of fossil fuels in Massachusetts. Part II (Guest viewpoint)

Updated Sep 25, 4:44 PM; Posted Sep 25, 4:44 PM 

Tennessee Gas Pipeline
MassDEP and a group opposing the Tennessee Gas Pipeline project, seen here, disagree about the impact of two incidents in Agawam. (Photo submitted by Susan Grossberg of Columbia Gas Resistance Coalition)

By Marty Nathan | Guest viewpoint

As I write this, climate-change-spurred fires rage in the West and massive hurricanes augmented by global warming threaten the Gulf Coast. The dictates of decades of scientific research, verified by the changes we see all around us, are to drastically cut back greenhouse gas emissions or experience a rapidly worsening future of heat, drought, fires, megastorms and sea level rise.

So where should we be investing our society’s resources? On a massive transition to energy conservation and the production of wind and solar electricity to power our grid, run our transportation and heat our homes? Or spend tens of millions on new gas pipelines and infrastructure that scientists say we do not dare use in a decade or so? The question laser-focuses our attention locally on the “Columbia Gas Reliability Project”, still fighting for our investment dollars in Agawam, Longmeadow and Springfield, after having been defeated in Holyoke and Northampton. Which will we choose?

Recently in Agawam we have witnessed the local environmental side effects of building the new gas infrastructure the “Reliability Project” requires. There Columbia Gas’ partner Tennessee Gas is upgrading a gas compressor station and building a 2-mile pipeline loop from the compressor station to the Agawam Gate Station. It was originally supposed to bring more gas from the major west-east pipeline to the new 6 miles of pipe Columbia wanted to send to Holyoke. But that pipeline was stopped. So, the purpose of this multi-million-dollar boondoggle is unclear to anyone but Tennessee Gas and its shareholders. Yet, no matter: the state and federal regulators ok’ed the project despite local citizens’, officials’ and environmentalists’ testimony that it was unnecessary, contributed to climate change and would damage local forests, farmlands, wetlands, vernal pools and threatened and endangered species.

Now the local threat is being fulfilled. On August 10 huge pipeline construction trucks ploughed through a vernal pool, the breeding ground for threatened amphibians. The incident garnered a Notice of Noncompliance from the Mass Department of Environmental Protection, but work continued. On September 1 there was a “frac-out” leaking 200 gallons of bentonite clay mud, some entering another wetland. The extremely fine-particle clay used to clean the drill head that creates the path for the new underground pipe leaked from below into the pool. Because of its density the bentonite clay can smother all life it encounters, destroying the pool’s ecosystem. Local organizer Susan Grossberg complained to the Agawam City Council, but so far digging and construction have continued. Residents are appealing to the Federal Energy Regulating Commission (FERC) to stop the construction and have received word from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office that she will investigate the matter.

(Coincidentally, the local dangers of new gas systems reverberated from Weymouth, Massachusetts, where a huge new compressor station, long resisted by residents, on September 12 experienced a large unplanned gas release into the community. It is a specter of dread for the Agawam condo-owners adjacent to the soon to be upgraded compressor which at present pollutes only with loud noise, including ear-splitting “blow-down” releases of excess gas pressure, and with exhaust from the engines and construction trucks.)

Meanwhile, across the river in Longmeadow, a vital grassroots group calling itself Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group has been battling the building of a new gas metering station at the Longmeadow Country Club and another large high-pressure Columbia Gas pipeline designed to carry fracked gas from the station to downtown Springfield. The metering station is to be built in the middle of a residential neighborhood, 1/4 mile from an elementary school. The pollution and explosion risks are obvious.

LPAG has held public speak outs, written letters to the editor and flyered the affected community. One hundred thirty residents attended the March 2019 Energy Facilities Siting Board Public Hearing. Forty angry citizens testified against the project,

LPAG then convinced the local Select Board to create two bylaws affecting the Columbia Gas plan: one strictly limits emissions for the project, while the other bans industrial gas facilities in a residential neighborhood. Both passed town meeting by near-unanimous votes. And remarkably, the town Select Board, School Committee, and Energy and Sustainability Committee all wrote letters of opposition to the pipeline and meter station, as did Senators Warren and Markey and Congressman Richard Neal.

Despite all the local opposition, the FERC, true to form, permitted the meter station. So LPAG looked north to coalition formation with its neighbors in Springfield. That dangerous, high-pressure pipeline is destined to cross the Springfield line to provide an alternative source of fracked gas to the big city

Organizing in Springfield has been more difficult, in great part because of Columbia Gas’ lack of transparency. The purpose, size, and route of the pipeline has never been revealed to the public or to City Council. CGMA has said that it will end at the Bliss Street Station, between Columbus Avenue and the Connecticut River, presumably passing through Forest Park’s poorer neighborhoods and past the Basketball Hall of Fame. Councilor Jesse Lederman held hearings in 2019 to gain information, but little was forthcoming. The Resistance Campaign wrote a letter to the President of CGMA demanding answers, but the company has stonewalled.

We face a real opportunity, though, to switch directions from the polluting, expensive, climate-changing path of further gas and fossil fuel development. By the end of September, Eversource is supposed to be buying Columbia Gas, in a deal stemming from CGMA’s criminal negligence in the explosions of the Merrimack Valley. Unlike Columbia, Eversource is not only a gas but an electric utility. This could be an opportunity to jumpstart the transition to heating our homes and water with renewably produced electricity. Eversource has the chance to address our only sustainable future by stopping the remnants of the “Reliability Project” and beginning investment now in high-efficiency electric heat pumps subsidized for low income people and powered by wind turbines and solar panels.

Every day Mother Nature and our economy make the choice clearer. Massive investment in green energy will lead to tens of millions of new jobs, cleaner air and less respiratory illness particularly in poor communities. It is our only chance to stop the steamroller of climate change now consuming the homes and lives of folks from Louisiana to Oregon. Let’s make it happen now in Hampden County.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother, grandmother and social justice and climate organizer.