Coalition is Being Formed to Save Local Elm Trees

By Suzanne Besser

When earlier this year Harvard University published a study showing the amount of methane leaking from Greater Boston’s aging pipelines to be three times what was previously thought, members of the downtown environmental group Mothers Out Front moved methane to the top of their agenda.

And when new information surfaced last month about the high concentration of leaking greenhouse gas around Mt. Vernon Street’s historic elm trees, some as old as 100 years, the same members wasted little time reaching out to other neighborhood groups also concerned about its toxic impact on trees.

At a meeting held Thursday, representatives from the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Tree and Green committees, Beacon Hill Garden Club, Beacon Hill Elms, City Councilor Josh Zakim’s office, Mothers Out Front and the Home Energy Efficiency Team came together to share information and ideas on how to address this issue.

Below ground methane leaks suffocate the roots of trees, which actually need air found in tiny openings in the soil to survive, according to ecologist and MOF member Claire Corcoran. When in 2012 the Friends of the Public Garden became concerned about trees dying on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, they conducted a survey that found 20 gas leaks. Another test in 2014 showed 13 more. Some trees have been replaced but many others continue to die along the Mall, she said.

The largest concentration of leaks on Mt. Vernon Street is between Number 30 and Number 68. “We’ve seen over and over again that gas leaks kill trees and we are trying to preserve and extend the lifespan of the Mt. Vernon Street elms, particularly the large trees that would take a human generation to grow back to their large size, and which contribute more to the environmental benefits provided by trees than small ones do,” Corcoran said.

The BHCA Tree Committee recently surveyed all trees on Beacon Hill, finding forty that were dead, according to Co-Chair Miguel Rosales. Besides the methane gas, other factors such as chronic environmental stress, road salt, insects, disease and damage caused by construction vehicles may also have contributed to their death.  The city plans to replace all the trees this spring, said Rosales.

National Grid is required to fix only leaks that are considered explosive. Less potent ones left behind are most likely the ones causing the tree damage, said MOF member Ania Camargo.

The group left the meeting resolved to meet with National Grid’s community representative in early January to explore ways they could work together to get the leaks fixed efficiently and effectively.

“I thought the meeting was incredibly positive and created some concrete preliminary steps for us to move forward,” said MOF member Sharon Malt, who coordinated the meeting.  “It was helpful to bring together every working group concerned about our neighborhood’s trees to collaborate rather than trying to navigate independently. Given the many hats some of us wear and the fact that we live here, I am hopeful that we can keep this momentum going by working with National Grid, informing our neighbors so that our concern becomes their concern, and resolving the most dangerous leaks as soon as possible to create a healthier environment for our trees and residents,” said Malt.

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