By Chris Lisinski, State House News Service

STATE HOUSE, WEYMOUTH, SEPT. 24, 2020…(State House News Service) – Federal regulators gave energy giant Enbridge the green light on Thursday to start service at the Weymouth natural gas compressor station, removing the final hurdle to the facility’s operation less than two weeks after an emergency shutdown prompted new controversy.

Rich McGuire, director of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Division of Gas — Environment and Engineering, wrote to Enbridge granting the company permission to launch operations at the Massachusetts facility and at a metering and regulator station in Maine, both of which are part of its Atlantic Bridge pipeline infrastructure.

Enbridge on Sept. 16 sought approval to start service in Weymouth by Oct. 1, aiming to use the compressor station to help ship natural gas northward to utility companies in Maine and Canada.

On Sept. 11, a gasket failed during testing at the compressor, prompting workers to trigger an emergency shutdown system and vent up to 265,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

Congressman Stephen Lynch urged federal regulators to step in and shut down the station following the incident, while U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey appealed to Enbridge directly, asking the company to pause operations until it completed a full investigation.

The Baker administration, which has drawn criticism for permitting the unpopular project, said after the emergency shutdown that Enbridge followed all necessary safety and notification procedures.

In a filing with FERC on Thursday, representatives for Enbridge subsidiary Algonquin Gas Transmission wrote that the company replaced the failed gasket and completed all testing.

“The commissioning process is designed to test system components prior to going into service,” Algonquin wrote. “Following replacement of the failed gasket, the equipment was inspected and successfully retested, and is now fit for service. Similar equipment was also inspected and successfully retested.”

It was not immediately clear if the company would begin service sooner than Oct. 1. A spokesperson for Enbridge did not answer directly when asked about the start date.

“Following a thorough and inclusive review process by federal and state agencies which began in January 2015, we are pleased to move forward with placing this important facility in service ahead of the upcoming winter heating season,” Enbridge spokesperson Max Bergeron wrote in an email. “The Weymouth Compressor Station will enable three local gas utilities in Maine and one in Canada to benefit from additional access to natural gas, helping homes and businesses switch from higher-emitting fuels to cleaner-burning natural gas.”

“We have been conducting testing and calibrating activities to ensure the facility is fit for service before becoming operational, and will continue to proceed with health and safety as our priority,” Bergeron continued.

FERC’s final authorization came amid ongoing opposition to the facility from community groups, environmental and public health activists, and many elected officials who represent the region, who argue that the compressor’s proximity to densely populated neighborhoods and the Fore River present significant threats.

Alice Arena, one of the leaders of the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station organization, said her group was “very disappointed” but “not at all surprised” with FERC’s approval.

“FERC is and has been nothing but a rubber stamp organization for the fossil fuel industry for decades, so this isn’t at all a shock,” Arena said in an interview. “I wouldn’t say we’re feeling defeated. I would say we’re feeling angry. We will continue to try to stop them from operating, and we will do that through the courts, and we will do that by proving the continued damage they will do to our air quality.”

Despite pushback, the project was able to move through its permitting hurdles at the state and federal levels.

In January 2019, when state regulators awarded air quality permits for the project, Gov. Charlie Baker said he “basically had no choice” about granting approval because of federal rules governing the process and the results of a health impact assessment he sought.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which conducted the assessment that forecast no major health impacts from the facility’s operation, later announced its opposition to the compressor on environmental and safety grounds.

Department of Environmental Protection regulators disclosed during an appeal process in May 2019 that the health study was based on incomplete air-quality data, but that did not change the outcome of the challenge.

A federal judge in June vacated the air permit for the facility, ordering Massachusetts regulators to conduct a new review of emissions-reduction technology.

After Enbridge asked for a review, the court later scaled back the ruling, sending the emissions matter back to the DEP without vacating the permit. In that updated judgment , issued Aug. 31, the court denied a motion from opponents to prevent the company from operating the station until the DEP reaches a final determination.

A group of South Shore lawmakers who have long opposed the project this week turned to Attorney General Maura Healey, asking her to intervene and address what they described as potential regulatory and civil rights violations impacting environmental justice communities.

In a letter to Healey on Monday, the legislators warned that designated environmental justice communities near the facility face significant pollution risks from its impending operation.

Both the project operators and state agencies failed to provide sufficient notice to residents ahead of several important hearings and public comment periods, lawmakers said.

“EJ communities are not being notified about projects that carry extreme environmental threats, which directly contradicts their designation as an EJ community,” lawmakers wrote. “It can be strongly argued that these actions are not only a violation of policies and regulations, but also that they may be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Republican Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth signed the letter, as did seven Democrats: Sen. John Keenan of Quincy, Sen. Walter Timilty of Milton, Rep. Ronald Mariano of Quincy, Rep. James Murphy of Weymouth, Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree, Rep. Joan Meschino of Hull and Rep. Bruce Ayers of Quincy.

The authors said the FRRACS group helped fill in gaps in notification, translating notices into Cantonese and circulating literature across the community. Without that effort, lawmakers said, environmental justice communities in the Germantown and Quincy Point neighborhoods “would not have known” about an October 2018 hearing.

Asked for comment, Healey’s office said only that the attorney general is reviewing the letter.

Healey in the past has pressed for the state to avoid expanding natural gas infrastructure, but she has not vocally opposed the compressor that Enbridge sought in Weymouth.

In 2015, a study from Healey’s office concluded that Massachusetts does not need additional pipeline capacity to meet its energy reliability needs. More dependence on gas, the study said, could limit the state’s ability to hit greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

A “much more cost-effective solution,” Healey said at the time, would be for state leaders “to embrace energy efficiency and demand response programs that protect ratepayers and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Healey submitted testimony to federal regulators in 2016 saying her office “shares many” of the environmental, public health and safety concerns that local stakeholders raised about the Weymouth compressor station.

In May 2019, after the DEP acknowledged it used incomplete air-quality data during a review, Healey said regulators “really bungled” testing but stopped short of taking a stance on the project itself.

Legislators tied their plea to a brief Healey issued in May warning that environmental pollution exacerbates the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. They suggested the facility should halt all operations until the pandemic subsides.

“A compressor station of this size and placement will create a significant added burden on air quality in an already overindustrialized region that abuts two EJ communities,” lawmakers wrote. “To the point of your report, EJ communities will be doubly affected by the virus and by additional pollutants if this compressor proceeds to operate while the pandemic is still a present threat.”

The lawmakers also wrote to the Baker administration on Monday, asking Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides to provide more information about the rate of gas release that can occur at the station and whether the company had air monitors deployed during the emergency shutdown.

That air-quality data, they said, would be an “essential part of the safety review for that incident.”

“With this being just the first week of testing for the compressor station, it would be contrary to the interests of not only adjacent Environmental Justice communities, but also the Fore River Basin community as a whole, to allow operations to continue until these pressing questions are answered and discrepancies are remedied,” they wrote. “We request that the DEP require all operations at the site be halted until necessary clarifications are made and safety can be ensured.”

(© Copyright 2020 State House News Service)

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