Changing the World…Leak by Leak

By Suzanne Besser

At a City Council public hearing held last week, a group of moms from Beacon Hill and beyond demonstrated how concerned, active citizens could make a difference in this world and, by doing so, help its residents breathe a lot easier.

The moms are members of Boston Mothers Out Front (MOF), a grassroots nonprofit concerned with the impact of climate change on their children and grandchildren. When a study published in January by Harvard University showed that the amount of methane leaking from Greater Boston’s aging gas pipelines was three times greater than previously thought, they were outraged.

Methane leaks emit a potent greenhouse gas, are harmful to the health of both humans and trees, and have been linked to major explosions. The amount of natural gas lost each year from Greater Boston’s aging, corroded pipelines is enough to heat 200,000 homes and is paid for by consumers.

“The Harvard study galvanized us to act,” said Muriel Finegold, a Mt Vernon Street resident and one of many MOF members who want those gas leaks fixed and fixed fast.

So, they decided the best way to get that done was to educate state and city officials on the gravity of the situation and persuade them to find ways to do something about it.

First, the concerned group of MOF members had to bring themselves up to speed. They did their homework, talked with knowledgeable people and worked closely with other environmental groups such as the Home Energy Efficiency Team, Boston Climate Action Network, Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club.

They then met with state legislators, learned of legislation currently being proposed by Representative Lori Ehrlich and Senator Jamie Eldridge, and decided to throw their support behind their two bills – one that would protect consumers from paying for leaked and unaccounted gas, and the second that would require gas leaks to be repaired during all ongoing road projects.

Next on their plan of action were visits to Boston city councilors. Armed with maps showing the gas leaks in the districts they represent, the moms urged each of them to support Ehrlich’s and Elddridge’s two bills.

Their hard work and advocacy paid off. After holding what he called “a remarkable meeting with these utterly brilliant people who are really focused on climate change,” Environment and Parks Committee Chair Matt O’Malley opted to sponsor a public hearing to discuss and find potential solutions to the city’s natural gas leakage problem.

Several MOF members said it was because of the leadership role played by Temple Street resident Ania Camargo that the hearing went very smoothly. “She performed an amazing leadership role by pulling together a team to plan the hearing, putting together a panel of people who had expertise in methane leaks from several perspectives, and meeting with O’Malley’s chief of staff to attend to all the details,” said Finegold.

 “MOF members played an incredibly important role in raising this issue and organizing the hearing,” said City Councilor Josh Zakim, who co-sponsored it with O’Malley. “I can confidently say that we would not have had nearly as successful a hearing without the hard work and support of Mothers Out Front.”

And successful it was. More than 200 people attended to urge the City Council to throw their weight behind the two state bills. “For an afternoon hearing, the crowd of concerned residents was enormous,” said Ehrlich. O’Malley said it was one of the largest turnouts at a public hearing that he was aware of.

“We alone brought more than 120 people there, 50-60 of who were from Mothers Out Front,” said Camargo, who said she spends 10 to 15 hours a week on the project because she believes it is an important issue that MOF can do something about.

A panel of legislators including Senator Eldridge and state representatives Ed Coppinger, Jay Livingstone, Liz Malia and Ehrlich also urged the Council to support the proposed state legislation.

During the hearing, O’Malley noted that Boston’s oldest gas leak, located near Park Drive and Beacon Street, had just celebrated its 30th birthday on September 16. “30 years!” quipped Ehrlich. “Fortunately there were no candles at the birthday party.”

When asked why it had never been fixed, National Grid spokesman Susan Fleck said that, while fixing the methane gas leaks is a priority for the company, the oldest leak is not near a residential neighborhood, not considered hazardous and its location makes it hard to repair.

“Technicians respond immediately to all reports of a gas leak,” she said. “We send a ‘sniffer’ truck out to survey the reported leak and look for the extent of gas in the air to determine its combustibility. We also look at how near it is to homes. Then we grade them. Those that pose an imminent threat are fixed immediately and the rest we place into the regular replacement program.”

National Grid has allocated $2.6 billion to replace the gas lines in Massachusetts. In Boston, recent data showed 20,000 leaks in Massachusetts gas lines and 1,853 leaks in Boston alone. Fleck said National Grid plans to replace 20-25 miles of gas lines a year in Boston.

But that was not enough to satisfy the crowd at the hearing. “If there are 425 miles of leaking pipes here and 20-25 miles are fixed each year, it will take 12-17 years to fix them, not including new ones that will come up along the way,” said O’Malley. “I say ‘Fix all the leaks and fix them fast.’ ”

The hearing ended after 3½ hours of testimony and the expression of other concerns about how the leaks were being repaired. “The gas company representatives appeared unprepared, completely unfamiliar with the bills, and unable to refute the information our panel put forth when asked,” noted Ehrlich.

After the hearing, O’Malley said he plans to convene a series of working session with all stake holders, including the utilities and the city’s oversight agencies, to talk about the best ways to handle the gas leaks, after which a formal recommendation would be put before the mayor.

In addition, he plans to propose two resolutions to the City Council that would support the state’s initiatives to remove the cost of the repairs from consumers and to require the utility companies to fix all leaks any time a road is opened up for repairs.

“It is not an oversight to say reducing the gas leaks will save lives,” said O’Malley. “It is one of the few issues that has virtually unanimous support.”

As for the MOF members, they left the meeting optimistic and proud of the amazing community they live in and the power of uniting and standing up for what they believe in, said Camargo.

But the work of these moms and grandmothers isn’t over. Their next step is to make sure the City Council follows up on all the recommendations from yesterday’s hearing, said Camargo. They’ll also encourage other cities to have similar hearings and actions, and make sure the two pieces of legislation pass at the state level.

There’s no stopping them.

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