Anti-Biomass Activists Mobilize Against Proposed Gas Pipeline in Springfield

By Sarah Robertson

SPRINGFIELD — Just months after environmental justice advocates celebrated a victory over a proposed biomass-burning power plant,  the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition is mobilizing again to fight a natural gas pipeline that would run from a planned transfer station in Longmeadow to downtown Springfield. On November 4th, residents, politicians and activists from Springfield and beyond gathered on the steps of Springfield City Hall to voice their opposition to the new pipeline.

“We do not have the time for Eversource to build an unnecessary fossil fuel expansion through our community, using our money, putting our people at risk,” said Naia Tenerowicz of Climate Action Now. “We need to use every dollar, resource, and worker that we have to stop the doomsday cult that is the fossil fuel industry.”

Eversource representatives say the roughly $40 million pipeline would be “redundant,” a backup if the existing line across the river that runs from the substation in Agawam were to fail. The existing pipeline, built about 70 years ago, crosses the Memorial Bridge and is the only gas line serving 58,000 households in Springfield. A major outage could take well over a month to fix, require 1,600 gas technicians, and leave some 200,000 people without gas heat, Eversource representatives said. 

At a virtual public forum on November 9th, Eversource employees stressed the fragility of the current network and the “urgent” need for backup infrastructure. The company is calling the 5-mile pipeline the “Western Massachusetts Reliability Project.” 

“It’s intended to address a failure west of the river or on the bridge. It is not an expansion project. It does not result in any additional gas or any new customers,” Eversource project manager Richard Salvarezza told attendees. “The total flow into the system would be unchanged.”

“In the event of a failure at the Agawam station or on Memorial Bridge an outage would occur on an unprecedented scale. It’s something we haven’t seen in the history of the company,” Salvarezza said. “There’s a concern about the reliance we’re placing on this single source for our customers.”

GAS LEAKS 

This urgent and dangerous situation is supposedly something Eversource has been working on since 2017, according to Salvarezza, when the state Department of Public Utilities approved the additional pipeline proposal on the eastern side of the Connecticut River. Originally, Columbia Gas had been looking into a new pipeline to Springfield, but  after a series of natural gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley on September 13, 2018, the company was forced to pay a $53 million fine, the largest criminal fine ever under the federal Pipeline Safety Act, and cease natural gas operations in Massachusetts. Eversource bought Columbia Gas and its assets for $1.1 billion in a deal finalized last year.

“Over the years the company operating this system has changed. It has gotten bigger, our customer base has expanded and there’s a lot of demand for natural gas,” Salvarezza said. “Over the years as we’ve been building this system the Connecticut River has posed a significant natural barrier. That’s why we find ourselves in this scenario where there is only one source or supply across that river.”

Verne McArthur, a leader of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition pointed out some seeming contradictions in Eversource’s justification of “reliability.” Both the old and the new gas lines would connect to Springfield’s Bliss Street transfer station, meaning a malfunction at that juncture would still lead to widespread service interruptions. While the company claims the new pipeline would not expand Eversource’s customer network, by their own projections, the customers base is expected to grow. 

“Eversource does not say there are any problems with the existing pipeline. It has lasted decades—and it survived a virtual direct hit from a tornado,” McArthur said. “Also, the proposed new pipe will be four times the size of the existing pipeline and requires this large new transfer station in Longmeadow.”  

The new pipeline would begin at a new point-of-delivery system to be constructed in Longmeadow by Eversource’s interstate gas supplier, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company. Tennessee Gas has already sought permits to build the station in a residential area on Hazardville Road, according to Eversource’s presentation. The pipeline would then travel up Shaker Road and Laurel Street, under the Longmeadow curve, then up East Columbus Road to the existing Bliss Street transfer station in downtown Springfield, currently on MGM Way. 

“This is a desperate attempt to provide return to Eversource shareholders before any real transition away from fossil fuels occurs,” McArthur said. “And ratepayers will pay for this, increasingly those unable to transition away from gas: poor and low income gas users.”  

For many activists, the existential threat of climate change motivates their opposition to this major buildout of fossil fuel infrastructure, but the seeming contradictions, safety hazards, cost and scale of the construction project is also a major concern.

“We need to move towards clean energy, and building a new pipeline isn’t doing that,” said  Zaida Govan, the newly elected City Councilor for Ward 8 and president of the Indian Orchard Citizens Council. “Why not invest in solar, and electricity? Eversource will still make money so why don’t we do something like that instead of investing in this new pipeline?”

Govan was a key organizer behind the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition’s anti-biomass movement, which successfully kept a polluting wood-burning power plant from her neighborhood. Her opposition to the new pipeline is partially motivated by a friend who was left disabled by the 2018 Merrimack Valley gas explosions. She urges Eversource to address known gas leaks along their existing lines before building new ones. 

“Of course we’re going to feel it in our bills we get from Eversource because of course they’re not going to pay for it themselves, they’re going to share the cost with the residents and the customers, but they’re not going to share the profits,” Govan said. “If we’re thinking about safety and the future, let’s fix those gas leaks that are currently happening so that another Merrimack Valley accident doesn’t happen, so that another Worthington Street explosion doesn’t happen.”

Salvarezza addressed concerns shared by the audience about pollution, safety and leaking methane by saying they would be investing in “state of the art technology.” There are currently 28 known leaks in the Springfield area, he said, after the company made “aggressive reductions” in recent years. Eversource has not shared any plans to upgrade the 70-year-old pipeline between Agawam and Springfield. 

When asked why the old pipeline is not being upgraded or replaced, Salvarezza said, “Regardless of whether the line is replaced….It would still not address the fact that that line acts as a single source supply.”

While Eversource pursues this multi-million dollar investment, the company is also appealing their property tax assessments in 87 communities across the state, MassLive reported, and withholding payments in the process. The company owes the city of Springfield around $44 million since litigation began in 2012.

BUILDING COALITIONS

“Last year we were fighting the biomass power plant, and that is less than five miles from my house in Springfield,” Tenerowicz told The Shoestring. “So I got really involved with that and after I graduated I just kept working. Now I’m a member of the steering committee of Climate Action Now, and I’m just, like, in it.”

Dozens of environmental advocacy and social services organizations make up the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, among them the Indian Orchard Citizen’s Council, Arise for Social Justice, Climate Action Now, Community Action Works and dozens more. Govan was a key player in the fight against the power plant and is now leading the charge against the proposed pipeline.

“I will be talking to my city council partners and I will be helping them to see, hopefully, the light of day to come on board with the opposition to this pipeline and any other issues that might come across our chambers that will affect climate justice in the future,” Govan said. 

Tenerowicz isn’t the only activist that connected with the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition through the biomass fight. Mireille Bejjani of Community Action Works has worked closely with the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition, and said this Eversource project is a test of the state’s commitment to the Next Generation Climate Roadmap Law, and the stated goal of which is to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

“This pipeline proposal is a test for our state government and officials: will they take into account cumulative impact on Springfield before adding another source of pollution? Will they center the frontline communities who will be most impacted?” Bejjani said. “For too long, communities like Springfield have been the site of harmful projects without being given a voice in the decision-making process.”

Senator Ed Markey opposes the pipeline too, and sent his policy advisor and regional director Jossie Valentin to the Nov. 4 press conference to speak on his behalf, “Fossil fuel pipelines are dirty, dangerous, and detrimental to public health and the environment,” Valentin said. “Building new fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with what is scientifically necessary to combat the climate crisis. We don’t need more pipelines just to improve profits for gas companies.”

According to Eversource spokesperson Priscilla Ress, the company plans to listen to the community and plan accordingly, “With a comprehensive public process just now beginning, we are committed to close collaboration throughout with our neighbors in the community and stakeholders at all levels to listen to their feedback and input,” she said in a statement, but did not respond to additional questions. 

During the open house Eversource representatives read aloud a statement of opposition from Longmeadow Select Board chair Mark Strange, “The risk of destruction facing that line has not been quantified. The Longmeadow expansion project is part of a much larger gas expansion project,” he wrote. “Tennessee Gas has agreed to build a meter station at the Longmeadow Country Club and paid handsomely to do so.”

The Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group was also present at the Nov. 4 rally. According to group leaders, the proposed site is on property owned by the Longmeadow Country Club and close to the Wolf Swamp Elementary School. 

“Who is going to pay for these additional expenses? The town is on a shoestring budget. We don’t have the means to absorb these costs or the risks to school kids and homeowners,” Strange wrote. “In addition to public health and safety risks, Longmeadow residents would not reap the benefits of the safety lines.”

Late last week, state senator Adam Gomez and state representatives Carlos González and Orlando Ramos met with Eversource to discuss the project. 

“We are against any gas expansion or potential projects that include gas expansion, especially in the city of Springfield,” González told Masslive. “However, we will continue discussions on a reliability project that they are proposing and a preferred route. Also, the impact that it will have, not only to the city and residents of Springfield, but also to the suburbs.”

The pipeline would carry methane gas 5.4 miles from Longmeadow along I-91 to downtown Springfield. The preferred route would pass by 986 abutters by Eversource’s calculation, and alternative routes exist including one that would pass through the Forest Park neighborhood, add two miles and pass several hundred more homes and businesses.  

During the public forum, Salvarezza said the new pipeline “does not impede” Eversource’s plans for carbon neutrality by 2030. Company representatives shared vague plans on how they will achieve that goal: not by investing in solar or wind energy, but by pursuing geothermal and hydrogen-blending technology projects. 

Eversource has plans to submit their proposal to the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board by the end of the year, beginning a two-year regulatory review process. They are still collecting public feedback before submitting the final proposal, and if all goes according to plan, construction would begin in late 2023. 

“I am not willing to fund the destruction of my future and I am not going to stand aside as Eversource fuels the fire that is burning my dreams, Tenerowicz said. “I implore Eversource to scrap this proposed natural gas pipeline and metering station, and instead use their resources to subvert the climate crisis. And I warn them that if they don’t give up on this project, we will fight them every step of the way.”


Sarah Robertson is a member-writer at The Shoestring.

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