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Greater Boston PSR Opposes Dangerous New Methane (“Natural Gas”) Infrastructure Plans

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As physicians concerned about the twin man-made threats to human survival—climate change and nuclear weapons—Greater Boston PSR would generally oppose major infrastructure that locks our energy system more firmly into greenhouse-gas generating fuels that threaten all of our futures. This is especially so when Massachusetts is not meeting its renewable energy goals even as climate change is accelerating and opportunities to mitigate it are running out. That said, our group of physicians has declared itself uniquely opposed to plans to build a methane gas compressor station in Weymouth as a truly dangerous and unjust project.

Our group includes experts in pre-hospital medicine, mass casualty medicine, public health and disaster preparedness. We have reviewed the construction plans, reviewed the air quality studies, visited the proposed site, and interviewed local EMS, police, fire and town officials. We find it alarming that plans to build this highly flammable, high-pressure gas infrastructure in such an inappropriate location have advanced this far. We have thus joined our voices as physicians and public health experts to those of citizens, technical experts and political leaders—including all of the region’s state legislators, its U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch, and U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey—who oppose this. We have issued 2 major scientific reports, met with state officials, and held a widely covered press conference about our findings.

Help us urge Governor Charlie Baker to block this controversial plan to locate explosive and polluting infrastructure in an already-overburdened Massachusetts community, for the main purpose of pumping methane north for sale abroad.

Not only would the construction of this compressor aerosolize 1,000 cubic yards of coal ash according to Spectra/Enbridge testimony, but the compressor itself will emit in its daily functioning significant amounts of the known carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde. That amount of coal ash translates to roughly to six football fields spread to the depth of an inch.

Our first report centers on rebutting the flawed health impact assessment that maintained that this project would have NO health impact—a stance difficult to maintain when the Commonwealth’s own report cites data showing that several areas near the compressor already suffer a 39% increased incidence of several cancers, presumably due to the pollution already emitted by heavy industry there.

As physicians, we can predict with a high degree of confidence that the toxic and carcinogenic emissions that will be released from this plant will further increase the risks of cancer and other chronic diseases in Weymouth, Quincy, Hingham, and Braintree.

Our second report addresses the safety issues around this proposed compressor station in Weymouth. Fire and explosion are two very serious risks associated with placing a natural gas compressor station in a densely populated community such as North Weymouth. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has failed, up until now, to consider the fire and explosion hazard that will be associated with this facility.

Lack of access into and out of the community is a big problem in North Weymouth. If a fire or an explosion ever takes place in this natural gas facility, the pipeline runs right by the Fore River Bridge; ambulances or fire engines will not be able to get in and safe evacuation of the surrounding communities will be impossible (see illustration below).

As physicians, we consider it very unjust that, as with so much natural gas infrastructure, this pipeline company proposes to locate this compressor station in the most economically depressed, politically powerless area of the entire South Shore from Boston to Cape Cod.

Natural gas infrastructure also is having a significant impact on climate change. Methane has increased in the atmosphere 250% since pre-industrial times—far more than CO2; and unconventional natural gas development, according to a key driver of climate change, is a significant driver factor of this increase.

Climate change is clearly affecting communities in the United States and worldwide and driving a cascade of public health challenges. As physicians, we experience these impacts in the uptick in cases of heat stroke, asthma, myocardial infarction and cerebrovascular accidents during extended heat waves, tick-borne illnesses due to expanded vector ranges, and mental health sequelae. A plethora of extreme weather events are not only displacing communities and taking lives, but represent a significant stress on our public health infrastructure.

A challenge equal to confronting the consequences of climate change is how to prevent further disruption and avert these serious human health impacts. To do this, we as physicians need to recognize the cause of these climatic challenges, the nature of these health impacts, and use our power of advocacy to promote change.

Recognizing the Cause 

The extraction, transport, and burning of two major fossil fuels, coal and methane (also known as “natural”) gas, leads to the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Global carbon dioxide has increased 47% and methane by 164% in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, with a marked increase in both since 2007.1 The increase in these two gases has set off an array of geophysical effects including ocean warming, consequent glacier melt and desalinization of the ocean leading to a disrupted meridional overturning circulation and jet stream, which in turn are thought to be driving extreme weather events.

While coal, diesel and gasoline represent the chief drivers of the increase in carbon dioxide, methane gas extraction and industrial agricultural practices are driving the recent increase in methane.2 This is important because the greenhouse gas warming effect of methane is estimated to be 25-100 times that of carbon dioxide; but at 10-12 years, its half life in the atmosphere is orders of magnitude shorter.6 Reducing methane gas release therefore has the potential to be immediately beneficial to human health by slowing climate disruption.

For the human health impacts due to the direct elaboration of carcinogens and particulate matter and due to its outsized but reversible impact on climate change, GB-PSR is drawing attention to the issue of the health effects of the rapid expansion of natural gas infrastructure in the Commonwealth.

1. Climate Change Indicators: Atmospheric concentrations of Greenhouse gases. 1/23/2017. 2. Worden J, Bloom A, Pandey S et al. Reduced biomass burning emissions reconcile conflicting estimates of the post-2006 atmospheric methane budget. Nature Communications 2017 (8): 2227.

2. Fracked Gas: A Threat To Healthy Communities