By Gabriele Crognale, P.E.
The New England region is unique in many respects. It spans the gamut from dense, compact metropolitan areas rich with history from our nation’s very beginning (Boston and Plymouth, Massachusetts), to vast expanses of wilderness areas (the Allagash and portions of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom), culminating in a mountain range with some of the most extreme weather on the planet (Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range).
Given this diversity of natural landscape, the region was shaped from the very beginning with mills and other factories taking advantage of the many rivers and waterways and harnessing the natural power of water to run those early mills and factories that helped shape the region’s economy in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century to the present-day 21st century, and many of these same former mills now house the present economic engine: many smaller service companies that help support Internet commerce throughout the region and beyond. This new paradigm shift – along with the new influx of the service-oriented workers these companies require -- extols an added cost: energy both to run and heat the businesses and energy to transport and house these workers.
Look around the major metropolitan areas of Greater Boston; Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; and the string of cities along the Interstate-95 corridor in Connecticut, and you'll see construction everywhere, feeding on vast quantities of energy, supplied by a power grid that utilizes hydropower from up north and into Eastern Canada, to a large network of primarily gas-fired power plants to help feed this growing need. With the exception of a small number of biomass plants located within the pulp and paper regions in Maine, gas and some hydro is the life-blood of New England’s energy needs.
This was the perfect storm that allowed Spectra Energy to come onto the scene in Massachusetts undetected and stay under the radar screen of many local media outlets. This is despite the fact that the proposed location of its high-pressure transfer station will be on property adjacent to the only active rock quarry in the city of Boston. By its nature, the quarry uses high explosives to free the stone that will be crushed to produce various sizes of gravel, that ultimately gets mixed with cement to help transform the landscape of greater Boston.
I say 'proposed,' yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has already granted Spectra Energy the right to construct “at its own risk” pending further federal review. According to some sources queried at various local meetings, the “at its own risk” is FERC’s way of granting permission without taking the heat for such actions prior to any legal objections that are pending.
At present, a number of local municipal offices have taken a stand against this proposed pipeline project, including the city of Boston, and the nearby towns of Dedham and Westwood. The towns’ concern relates to the location of the actual pipeline that goes below Interstate-95 (Route 128 to locals), and along several main thoroughfares that ferry substantial amounts of traffic to and from the area.
In addition to the locals, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) has led the Massachusetts congressional delegation to back him in submitting correspondence to FERC to re-review the project, following the tentative approval of the application filed with FERC for the Algonquin Gas Transmission line owned by Spectra Energy.
What has been troubling from the start about this proposed project is the lack of news coverage about such a controversial project – that is, until a grassroots movement sprang up igniting a small, but growing firestorm of opposition that led to one local selectman being arrested for trespassing onto an active construction site adjacent to a major regional shopping mall in Dedham (Legacy Place).
Among the first newscasts to bring this proposed pipeline to the mainstream was a brief segment featured in the local news showing protesters voicing their opposition and demanding action for greater transparency on the part of Spectra Energy.
Since that first newscast aired in early 2015, the opposition to the pipeline -- and, most disconcerting, the location of the transfer station adjacent to an active quarry – has grown, with a number of local town hall-like meetings offered in which Spectra Energy representatives have always been invited to respond to resident concerns – but have each time made last-minute excuses for not attending. For a company that prides itself on being a true environmental steward, sustainable and transparent, at first blush, this may not seem so. Perhaps, one should look to answers for whether Spectra Energy is truly an environmental steward by evaluating more closely the company’s track record in other Northeastern states, such as the methane leak in in a Pennsylvania township. Spectra energy’s PR person originally said: "Nothing was released. There was no smoke. No incident.” But this proved not to be the case.
If this methane incident is a sample of how Spectra energy operates, the company may be riding a fine line between misstatements and outright greenwashing, for which some folks have already filed complaints with the FTC against the company.
However, if residents and the public want to see something positive come out of this controversy, Spectra Energy needs to come clean and address the residents' and the public officials' affected concerns and not just rely on their consultant’s (GZA Environmental) health and safety report and FERC’s preliminary approval. Yes, this region needs additional energy, but at this price, does it justify the effect on human collateral?
Image credit: Flickr/Tim Evanson
Gabriele Crognale, P.E. is an Environmental Management Practitioner.