Gas Leak Dangers for Beacon Hill Trees

By Ania Camargo and Claire Corcoran, volunteers for Mothers Out Front

Trees are one of Beacon Hill’s treasures. But they lead a tough life—not enough water, hit by cars and trucks, poisoned with road salt during the icy winters, and, increasingly, killed by gas leaks. Last August, at least three trees on Temple Street were dying from methane gas in the root zone and were removed. In 2015, out of 37 dead trees in Beacon Hill, 30% died from gas leaks.

Gas leaks survey of Beacon Hill during Fall 2015 by Gas Safety USA. Only the streets in red were surveyed. The leaks on other streets are not shown.

National Grid knows about gas leaks under our streets killing trees, but they are not required to fix them. There are more than 3,000 gas leaks in the Greater Boston Area.  Under current law, utility companies must fix only gas leaks that are considered explosive or that could soon be explosive. Trees don’t matter.

The infrastructure that brings gas to Boston’s homes and businesses dates back to the 19th century. In the days when the downtown neighborhoods were constructed, pipes laid to deliver methane gas to street lamps (which were later adapted for homes and businesses) were 12-foot lengths of cast iron. Pipes were connected and “sealed” by stuffing the joints with burlap bags painted with creosote. Over the years, freeze/thaw cycles, groundwater movement, and rusting have opened many of these junctions, leaking the gas into the surrounding soil. When methane displaces the oxygen the roots need, the trees suffocate. In some locations it has been possible to measure the methane emanating from the exposed stumps of removed trees.

All gas leaks should be repaired as quickly as possible. Gas can explode, as it did in Merrimack Valley last fall. Gas leaks also contribute to climate change since methane is 80 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than other fossil fuels when it is released into the atmosphere without being combusted. Leaked methane is bad for respiratory health, contributes to ground level ozone which further exacerbates asthma, and contains unknown toxins as residue from the fracking process that produces 80 percent of our gas supply. Gas leaks also are wasteful, and we’re paying for them. They are included in the calculation of our utility rates—$90 million a year in the Boston area alone!

            The Gas Leaks Allies coalition, including Mothers Out Front, is working with state legislators on a bill called FUTURE that mandates that utility companies promptly fix leaks that are killing trees. The bill provides important public safety measures, and creates more transparency for the state Department of Public Utilities, which regulates gas companies. It also creates incentives and pathways for gas companies to transition to providers of renewable energy. With enough political support, these solutions could help guide us toward a sustainable future—one that stops harming our trees, as well as our climate. For more information, visit the Mothers Out Front website, http://www.mothersoutfront.org/gas_leaks_fact_sheet.

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