Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility Calls for Immediate Halt to Operations and Legislative Review of Weymouth Compressor Station July 7, 2021


Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility Calls for Immediate Halt to Operations and Legislative Review of Weymouth Compressor Station

June 7th, 2021

Media contact: Anna Baker, Executive Director, Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. Email: / phone: (617) 868-3003

Brookline, Mass.– June 7th –  Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility (GBPSR) calls for an immediate halt to operations at the Weymouth Compressor Station and a legislative review of the serious safety and health issues posed by its operation.

The Weymouth compressor has been the site of FOUR major unplanned gas leaks as well as THREE planned releases – SEVEN releases total – in less than a year since it opened last September, including two unplanned leaks last week.  Thankfully, none of these gas leaks has to date led to fire or explosion.

Due to serious concerns about the location of the compressor in a densely populated low-income, flood-prone, environmental justice community under the shadow of the Fore River Bridge and its threats to public health and safety, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission( FERC), tasked with oversight of the interstate energy system, is reviewing the entire project. GBPSR thanks FERC for this review.

The Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), a statewide professional association for physicians and medical students, supporting 25,000 members, has approved MMS (Society) policy urging state legislators to do the same. The Society advocates for “A legislative review of the approval process of the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor.” Specifically, the MMS has asked the legislature to examine “why the Health Impact Assessment for the compressor station did not include a safety assessment and evacuation plan, an assessment of the project’s climate impact, or consideration of health risks of emissions from the compressor to nearby young children.”

The Weymouth compressor poses ongoing, unacceptable risks to public health and safety due to its:

–Manifold operational malfunctions and repeated, unplanned gas leaks, any one of which could lead to fire and explosion in a community with no safe means of evacuation;

–Significant health risks resulting from large-scale air pollution events and daily emissions of hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals;

Climate and geophysical hazards;

–Location in an environmental justice community already burdened with elevated levels of air pollution and its health effects.

The Hon. Janet Rothschild, Hearing Officer at the MA Department of Environmental Protection, made operation of this compressor contingent on its limiting intentional and unintentional releases of gas – “blowdowns” – to two per year. But now the compressor has had FIVE unplanned release events plus three planned releases–resulting in a cumulative release of OVER A MILLION CUBIC FEET OF GAS in under one year. Failure to comply with the Hearing Officer’s stipulation should in and of itself be cause for immediate shutdown of the facility. But there are even greater safety concerns that justify immediate revocation of this compressor station’s license to operate.

The facility is located in a dense urban area whose population is already burdened with high rates of asthma, heart disease and cancer. Air pollution from this facility is thus a threat to the already vulnerable health of thousands of people in the surrounding neighborhoods, including two environmental justice tracts. Children, the elderly and pregnant women in these communities are at risk for serious health effects from the pollution elaborated by this compressor.

Boston College pediatrician and epidemiologist, Dr. Philip Landrigan states that, “Air pollution is a proven cause of asthma, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Air pollution results in increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations. It increases risk for premature birth and low birth weight.” Dr. Landrigan goes on to say that, “Siting of this compressor station in an environmental justice community like North Weymouth that is already burdened with elevated levels of air pollution and high rates of multiple chronic diseases is unjust and is manifestly dangerous to public health. It should never have been located there.”

Act of God or Act of Man? Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline company that owns and operates the Weymouth compressor, claims that the unplanned release of more than 11,000 cubic feet of gas on May 20 was an Act Of God or “Force Majeure” – something that was entirely beyond their control. As physicians, who take responsibility for every one of our actions every day we practice medicine, we consider this claim reckless and irresponsible.

As doctors, nurses, and public safety experts, we call for closure of this ill-conceived poorly operated and dangerous facility. We agree with the Massachusetts Medical Society in urging a full legislative review of this project, including why the Health Impact Assessment did not include a safety assessment, a review of the evacuation plan, a climate impact assessment, or consideration of the serious health risks from emissions to the vulnerable populations, including a disproportionate number of elderly and young children who live in close proximity to the compressor.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is a physician-led non-profit advocacy organization with more than 1,000 members. Our chapter includes experts in public health, cancer epidemiology, occupational medicine, environmental health, emergency medicine, and disaster preparedness.

For more information, please contact us at / 617-868-3003

Important supporting data: Weymouth compressor

Air pollution and vulnerable populations: increased mortality from respiratory and cardiac disease. People most at risk of health complications from breathing polluted air include children, older adults and people who have underlying health conditions like asthma and COPD. This area is in the TOP quartile of the state for percentages of residents over age 65, under age 5 AND for rates of COPD and asthma. Children are more sensitive to air pollution than healthy adults because they have a higher lung surface to body weight ratio, higher breathing rates and are more active and spend more time outdoors than adults; they are also more vulnerable because they have developing respiratory and immune systems. The 3,100 children who live and go to school within a mile of the compressor are therefore being exposed to higher levels of air pollution and are at higher risk of respiratory illnesses–particularly given the fact that 12.5% of those children have asthma. Another air pollutant, particulate matter, is being emitted from the compressor station on a daily basis; like benzene, it is classified by WHO and the IARC as a Group 1 carcinogen, and has known neurologic, cardiac, and respiratory disease impacts. We have significant concerns that environmental justice communities’ existing health inequities were ignored in the siting of the compressor station.

Benzene and other air toxics: elevated risk for cancer and respiratory disease.

Since FERC issued the permit for the compressor station in 2017, air monitoring in the Fore River Basin conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has revealed levels of air toxics elevated above state regulatory thresholds. Existing levels of air toxics such as Group 1 carcinogen benzene is elevated above regulatory levels in that area; in the case of benzene, at 400% above regulatory levels. This is important because benzene is a Group 1 carcinogen that is known to exert health effects at every level of exposure. The Weymouth compressor station, according to the GBPSR analysis, is projected to be the most significant emitter of seven air toxics in the Fore River basin and the second largest benzene emitter.

Safety: : Potential Impact Radius (PIR) not protective of life.

Residents’ houses and a Metering and Regulating (M&R) station, which in essence functions as a small gas compressor, lie within the Potential Impact Radius (PIR) of the Weymouth compressor. PIR, known in the literature as the “incineration” or “death zone,” is designed to model a sudden, isolated infrastructure explosion in a large sparsely inhabited  rural area. Compressor stations are generally sited on land plots ranging from 34 acres to 104 acres in sparsely populated zones, while the Weymouth site is located on a mere 4.3 acres in a densely populated area.

The calculated PIR of the Weymouth compressor is 774 feet; the closest house lies at 700 feet, which is within the PIR  (PIR = 0.69 x D x SQRT (MAOP)). The presence of other highly flammable infrastructure within the PIR increases the PIR significantly; however the additive effect of this additional flammable infrastructure, such as the nearby Metering and Regulating station, was not included in the Company’s PIR calculation.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for pipeline explosions’ actual burn radius to be twice the PIR.

“Each one of these events is a precursor of what can happen out there. A 30-inch, high-pressure pipeline is capable of creating a zone of death of 700 to 800 feet,” according to Mr. Donald Deaver, a mechanical engineer with three decades of experience in the pipeline industry, who investigated the explosion of a 30-inch pipeline in San Bruno, TX. He commented that too often this infrastructure is located near homes and schools. The Weymouth compressor is located within a mile of 3,100 school children.

As concerning, newer pipelines appear to be more susceptible to explosion than even the very oldest pipelines. According to a study by the Pipelines Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), when analyzed by decade of installation, there has been a five-fold increase in transmission pipeline explosions or “incidents” since the early 2000s; even more concerning, industry has no explanation for why this should be the case. The FIVE accidents at the Weymouth compressor would appear to corroborate these data: a compressor only recently put into service has suffered FIVE major accidents, two of which occurred in its first 100 days despite the fact that the infrastructure was newly installed.

No means of evacuation. There is no way to safely evacuate this area. In the event of an explosion, the massive Fore River Bridge would be compromised since the base and pylons of the bridge are also in the PIR. There is only one major road that offers ingress and egress; and according to first responders from the area, inhabitants would be trapped in a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation. A safety assessment was promised in a letter from Governor Baker to local elected officials before project approval but the promised safety assessment, calculating, for example, the additional effect of nearby explosive infrastructure on PIR, was never carried out. Public health expert Dr. Philip Landrigan,Director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College, adds that there can be no adequate safety plan for Weymouth in the event that an explosion occurs there: “given the limited routes available to the local population, there is no safe method of egress or ingress in the event of an emergency.” In addition, there are houses in the projected “PIR” or incineration zone that would be destroyed in the event of an explosion. Explosions happen more commonly in new natural gas infrastructure than old.

Accidents. Five accidents have now occurred at the facility, resulting in the release of over one million cubic feet of gas due to O-ring failures and failures in the emergency shutdown system as well as to “acts of god.” This infrastructure is at high risk of becoming a preventable human tragedy as historic as the failure of the O-rings on the space shuttle Challenger. The intended operating pressure of this compressor is 1,440 pounds per square inch (psi). Since the accidents at the station, the Weymouth compressor was ordered to reduce pressures by about half. Yet even with a pressure of 720 psi, the calculated PIR is 555ft. Given the thermal energy of such a fire and the proximity of adjacent explosive infrastructure that would likely be ignited, the actual PIR in the event of an explosion would be vastly greater than the calculated PIR.

Climate and geophysical hazards. The entire site is located in a known hurricane floodplain, in an area already known to be susceptible to active flooding. It is also located on a man-made promontory made out of coal ash and petroleum products. As a man-made piece of land, it is subject to geologic phenomenon known as subsidence, or the gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land. The three processes–subsidence, the known rising sea levels due to climate change, and the location in a known flood zone–appear to be working together synergistically to make this an exceptionally unstable and unsafe location for this highly explosive infrastructure.

Environmental justice communities and health impacts. The surrounding communities include vulnerable populations. Within 1.5 miles of the compressor station, lie communities IN THE TOP QUARTILE STATEWIDE FOR:

  • Oral and pharyngeal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Asthma hospitalization
  • COPD ER visits and hospitalization
  • Heart attack rates
  • Nonwhite population
  • Over 65, under 5
  • Population density
  • Lowest median quartile income

This fact raises significant environmental justice concerns: the compressor is located in an area that includes two environmental justice tracts in the highest quartile for lower median household income and thus higher poverty level than the state as a whole; highest quartile for population density; and large immigrant communities and communities of color.

Elevated cancer rates. Two adjacent communities, Germantown and Quincy Point, are designated environmental justice areas. According to the health impact assessment performed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the lung cancer rates in the two Environmental Justice census tracts of the Fore River Basin are already 39% higher than the rest of Massachusetts, while the risk factors cited in the report for said cancers (smoking) are similar to those in the rest of Massachusetts.

Within 1.5 miles of the compressor station, lie communities in the top quartile of the state for six types of cancers, heart attack rates, and COPD and asthma hospitalizations. Cancer risk for the Fore River Basin, calculated using data collected by MassDEP, ranges from 74.3-110 total cancer risk per million, which exceeds the Massachusetts Contingency Plan threshold of 10 per million.

These data substantiate significant concerns that environmental justice communities’ existing health inequities were ignored in the siting of the compressor station.

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