More than 100 demonstrators, many clad in orange-and-yellow safety vests, descended on Cambridge Street near the Government Center MBTA station on Wednesday, July 31, to call attention to one of National Grid’s major natural gas-leaks in Massachusetts – and a potential hazard the company has thus far neglected to address.
“Orange and yellow are your colors – you should wear them all the time because you look great,” Ania Camargo, event organizer; co-coordinator of Gas Leaks Allies; and volunteer for Mothers Out Front, a national, grass-roots group of mothers, grandmothers and other caregivers advocating for a transition off of fossil fuels to renewable energy in an effort to combat climate change, told participants via a bullhorn. “We want this to have a life of its own [on social media] to tell National Grid they need to find, measure and fix the biggest gas-leaks.”
Demonstrators, who also included members of the Sierra Club, the Boston Climate Action Network and the Boston Students Advisory Council, formed a circle on the street and sidewalks near 100 Cambridge St., which is home to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the Massachusetts General Hospital Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit, MGH’s Mongan Institute and the office of Attorney General Maura Healey. The building is also reportedly near the site of a 13-year-old, 2,000 square-foot gas-leak.
Following Camargo’s instructions, participants held up placards pointed at the sky that spelled out: “#NGridMeasureUp” and “#FixBigGasLeaks,” which were filmed and photographed by a drone overhead.
Camargo also pointed out a dead tree in the median, adding the potent greenhouse gas methane leaking into the atmosphere can accelerate climate change and potentially cause explosions.
City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who joked that he dyed his naturally red hair orange in solidarity with participants, was instrumental in the passage of a city law in 2016 that created a new mechanism to handle gas leaks by coordinating efforts to identify and fix them with utility companies – an ordinance that National Grid has challenged in court.
Unlike Eversource and Columbia Gas, which have made good on their promise to identify, prioritize and fix the leaks, National Grid intends to delay the process for another year.
“These [gas-leaks] can last for decades,” O’Malley said. “We need to fix them, and we need to fix them now.”
State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, who along with Sen. Jamie Eldridge sponsored the first legislation in 2009 to address gas-leaks, said Massachusetts was the first state to enact legislation to identify and repair grade 3 leaks with a “significant environmental impact,” even though National Grid isn’t currently measuring and fixing them, including the one near 100 Cambridge St.
(The grade 1-3 classification was enacted under state law in 2014, with grade 1 requiring immediate attention and considered potentially dangerous; grade 2 leaks defined as non-hazardous, but could pose a future hazard; and grade 3 described as low-level leaks that pose no immediate risk to public safety, but depending on their size, can have a “significant environmental impact.”)
Ehrlich, along with Rep. Christina Minicucci and State Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, has also filed The FUTURE bill, “An Act For Utility Transition to Using Renewable Energy,” which Ehrlich said aims to “get us all off burning fossil fuel at home and switching to renewable energy.”
Said Ehrlich, “It’s the only bill of its size and magnitude in the U.S.”
Eldridge, also in attendance, added, “We’ve done our part at the grass-roots and legislative levels. Now, it’s time for the utility companies to do their part and close all the leaks.”
Other elected officials at the event were City Councilors Ed Flynn and Michelle Wu.
Bob Kievra, lead program manager of U.S. communications in Massachusetts for National Grid, wrote in an email: “National Grid has consistently remained focused on both safety and the clean energy transition. We entered 2019 with a backlog of grade 2 leaks that needed to be prioritized. We reviewed our grade 3 repair options under new regulations and selected the option that would ensure we could stay in full compliance with the requirements. For this year, we’re identifying our grade 3 SEIs (Significant Environmental Impact) using the barhole method. We are fixing leaks through this method and have repaired nearly 100 this year.”
(The “barhole method” is one of the methodologies the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities stated could be used for measuring the amount of natural gas in the ground; it entails banging a hole in the ground and inserting the nozzle of a combustible gas indicator inside it.
Another is the “leak extent method,” which has been shown to be better correlated with the size of the leak, and is being used by Columbia Gas and Eversource; this entails gauging the perimeter of a patch of methane-saturated land using a tape measure.)
Kievra also wrote that National Grid remains committed to reducing green-house gases, and that deferring the “leak extent method” is only “temporary,” although he “understand[s] the “disappointment this decision has caused [Mothers Out Front and other stakeholders].”
Wrote Kievra: “We have assured them that we remain committed to incorporating learnings from the 2018 study into our gas leak repair plans and plan to use the leak extent method beginning in 2020.”
An unconvinced Camargo countered: “Instead of taking the effective, money saving and emission-reducing action they promised two years ago, National Grid has chosen to identify which leaks to fix using a method that does not work. Using this ineffective method, they will end up fixing smaller leaks, charging more for those leaks, while claiming they are cutting emissions. How about instead of waiting until sometime in 2020 to do what is right, they train and hire more workers to fix the big gas leaks immediately? Our climate is not waiting for National Grid. We call on them to do better.”