Salem News: Repair Leaks the Gas Leaks

The Salem News reminds residents to keep the pressure on the utilities to repair gas leaks. National Grid reports 62 leaks in Salem; SAFE in its own survey identified at least 232 leaks. That data will be reviewed tonight, November 28, at “The Hidden Cost of Gas Leaks” forum, at the Salem State Enterprise Center. The program begins at 7 pm.

In Our View, the Salem News editor writes:

Local environmentalists —  including, notably, Marblehead state Rep. Lori Ehrlich — have been pushing for years to get National Grid and other utilities to plug the tens of thousands of small gas leaks throughout the state. They’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough.

So organizations like Salem Alliance for the Environment, better known as SAFE, deserve accolades for keeping this issue on the front burner. The group is sponsoring a forum Tuesday night at Salem State University called “The Hidden Costs of Salem’s Gas Leaks,” to try to educate the public and mobilize the community behind state legislation aimed at forcing utilities to do a better job.

While Salem’s event is locally focused, the problem affects the entire region. According to utility reports, Salem had 62 gas leaks at the end of 2016, which puts it better off than some of its neighbors; Peabody had 154, Marblehead 117, and Lynn 267. Elsewhere in the region Gloucester had 43 leaks last year, Lawrence 110 and Newburyport 18.

The leaks are graded on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being the most severe, and 3 the weakest. (Those interested in finding out where the gas leaks are in their community can consult the interactive map put together by the Cambridge-based nonprofit The Home Energy Efficiency Team at https://www.heetma.org/squeaky-leak/natural-gas-leaks-maps/)

And those numbers are just from utility reports. SAFE, which worked with Gas Safety Inc. last year to track gas leaks in Salem, identified 232 in the city. Moreover, the group correlated gas leaks with dying street trees. Their work was so convincing that Salem has halted planting of new trees in some areas until the utilities repair the leaks.

“The whole matter of gas leaks is unacceptable,” Salem City Councilor Steve Dibble said. “While this gas is coming out, it’s hurting the environment — actually killing trees throughout the city of Salem. It’s bad for humans, and it just isn’t a safe practice.”

Dibble is certainly right about the risks. Folks in Gloucester still recall the destruction of an East Main Street home that exploded when gas leaked into the basement. Many of the gas lines in the city date back to 1911.

That’s part of the problem. Repairing or replacing old or faulty lines is costly, time-consuming business.

“It’s an issue we’ve been aggressively tackling,” National Grid spokesman Bob Kievra told reporter Dustin Luca. Kievra said his company hopes to eliminate all Grade 3 leaks over the next decade.

Kievra said the work comes with a “pretty impressive” price tag. According to The Home Energy Efficiency Team, there were 16,507 active gas leaks across Massachusetts in 2016. There were 11,930 leaks that had been repaired in that time. A 2015 Harvard University study estimated the gas leaking from those faulty or broken pipes costs utilities $120 million a year.

Activists and public safety officials urge residents to report leaks, no matter how small.

“We want people to … just be really vigilant about gas leaks around their homes and houses, their buildings, places, wherever they smell gas,” SAFE’s Pat Gozemba said. “The worst thing that can happen is people get complacent about the smell of gas, and you take it for granted — because you never know when another gas leak is beginning, and that gas leak is the one that could blow.”

Right now, however, there’s little incentive to plug street leaks deemed “nonhazardous,” since the utilities just pass on the cost of the escaping gas to their customers. SAFE is backing a bill at the state Legislature to prevent charging ratepayers for that gas. It’s a sensible proposal — ratepayers shouldn’t be paying for gas that doesn’t reach their homes, most certainly when the escaped gas is killing the trees in their neighborhood. Mayor Kim Driscoll and the Salem City Council have backed those efforts, which deserve region-wide support.

This kind of advocacy will be needed to win this years-long struggle to get utilities to expedite their repairs, and we hope other voices will join in, too.

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Salem News: SAFE Gas Leaks Forum 11.28.17

Dustin Luca of the Salem News “gets” the significance of all of the gas leaks in Salem–anywhere from 232 to more than 1,000. Learn why there is such a wide discrepancy between SAFE’s data and the official count of leaks from National Grid.

SALEM — Environmental advocates have been working for months to spotlight slow-flowing gas leaks across the city. Now, they’re kicking their efforts into high gear and looking for support.

Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE), Mayor Kim Driscoll and others will come together Tuesday at a forum aimed at identifying “The Hidden Costs of Salem’s Gas Leaks.” The event will take place at Salem State University’s Enterprise Center from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

“We don’t want to keep saying, ‘there’s all these gas leaks,’ and then say that again six months later,” said Pat Gozemba, co-chairperson of SAFE. “What we’re hoping to do is mobilize the community.”

Gas leaks are frequently discussed, often complained about and even routinely patched. But for the last couple years, the amount of protest in Salem has grown.

Bob Kievra, a spokesman for National Grid, said there were 84 gas leaks in Salem as of Oct. 1.

In Salem, however, the leaks have been linked to dying trees around the city. The leaks trap gas in the soil, starving tree root systems of the oxygen they need to breathe.

“The whole matter of gas leaks is unacceptable,” said Ward 7 City Councilor Steve Dibble. “While this gas is coming out, it’s hurting the environment — actually killing trees throughout the city of Salem. It’s bad for humans, and it just isn’t a safe practice.”

Dibble filed an ordinance with the City Council on Sept. 28 that, among other things, would require gas companies like National Grid to expedite gas leak repairs.

The ordinance is due to be fine-tuned following SAFE’s event next week and discussed in December, Dibble said, with the possibility of a vote toward the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

“From our side, with the local ordinance, we’ll open a mechanism to allow the city to recoup the costs of the dead or dying trees caused by the gas leaks,” he said. “It’ll also require the gas company to work with the city of Salem in advance (on setting up utility work).”

National Grid assigns three grading levels to gas leaks — grade 1 is the most severe, while grade 3 leaks are the weakest.

“We’re working to eliminate all grade-3 leaks in 10 years,” Kievra said. “It’s an issue we’ve been aggressively tackling.”

Kievra said the price tag on the work “is pretty impressive,” but that’s because the utility company is working on leaks statewide. According to a map of gas leaks in Massachusetts on HEETMA.org, there were 16,507 active leaks across the state at the end of 2016. Last year, 11,930 leaks had been repaired across the state — 99 of them in Salem.

But SAFE argues that the number of leaks in Salem is larger than what’s reported. For instance, although National Grid said there were 62 leaks in the city at the end of 2016, Gozemba said SAFE measured 232.

“Next month, December, they’ll have to report for 2017 how many gas leaks there are in the city of Salem,” Gozemba said. “We’ll be very interested in seeing how many they report, and how many they’ve fixed.”

Last August, SAFE worked with Bob Ackley, president of Gas Safety, Inc. to identify and track all gas leaks in Salem, leading officials to the 232 leaks number. Ackley also tested sites where trees were scheduled to be planted and found that 26 of the 246 spots registered levels of gas high enough to kill a tree.

In September, the City Council learned that other tree plantings were being put on hold as work was done to identify and push for the repair of the leaks.

The forum next week will pull all these efforts together to get residents to support pressuring National Grid to make repairs.

Part of that involves supporting Dibble’s ordinance, as well as five bills before state lawmakers this year — one of which seeks to stop utility companies from charging rate payers en-masse for the leaked gas.

Gozemba said SAFE also hopes the forum will encourage residents to report gas leaks to the Fire Department, which in turn notifies National Grid of a problem.

“The other thing we want people to do is just be really vigilant about gas leaks around their homes and houses, their buildings, places, wherever they smell gas,” Gozemba said. “The worst thing that can happen is people get complacent about the smell of gas, and you take it for granted — because you never know when another gas leak is beginning, and that gas leak is the one that could blow.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

SAFE Sponsored Gas Leaks Forum Nov. 28

LoGas Leak Flyer_FinalFinal2_Low ResSalem Gazette features a story by William Dowd on the upcoming Nov. 28th gas leaks forum:

A Salem Alliance for the Environment public forum aims to, in part, raise the public’s conscience about an epidemic of leaky pipes spewing out natural gas across the city.

“The Hidden Cost of Salem’s Gas Leaks” is the name of the forum to take place in Salem State University’s Enterprise Center, 121 Loring Ave., on Nov. 28 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The event is open to the public.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, SAFE co-chair Pat Gozemba, Boston University Professor and tree scientist Nathan Phillips, President of Gas Leaks, Inc. Bob Ackley and Salem State University and geographer and graphic information science specialist Marcos Luna constitute the 90-minute program’s presenters and speakers.

In a recent interview with the Salem Gazette, Gozemba shared SAFE tapped Ackley and Phillips, widely considered the region’s gas-leaks expert, to survey Salem’s 93 miles of roads over a two month period, a project that got underway in Aug. 29, 2016. The survey’s results, released exactly a month later on Sept. 29, 2016, located 232 gas leaks.

The findings were nearly four times more than the 62 gas leaks that National Grid reported three months later. The public can view National Grid’s gas-leaks data at http://bit.ly/2A9wEK0.

The cost of leaking natural gas is multilayered and has adverse impacts on public safety and health as well as the environment: Leaks kill trees, add to climate change, can be ticking time bombs, harms human health erodes air-quality.

“Leaking natural gas pipelines are a prevalent and correctable problem, not just in Salem but across the commonwealth,” wrote Driscoll in an article posted to SAFE’s website in October. “Ninety-five percent of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and fully 10 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be from these gas leaks.”

She added, “These impacts are worsened because as leaked methane kills off city trees, it reduces our canopy and further erodes our ability to combat climate change.”

Moreover, Gozemba said ratepayers absorb the cost of lost, unaccounted natural gas leaving pipes. Driscoll even mentioned the financial burden placed on ratepayers.

“Natural gas leaks are a cost directly passed on to Salem consumers,” wrote Driscoll in her article. “We need state action to put an end to that. Massachusetts ratepayers pay up to $135 million extra every year because of these leaks.”

Driscoll’s article published to SAFE’s website endorsed and expressed her shared support of a Salem City Council-passed resolution in September, urging state lawmakers pass the Consumer Cost Protection Bill. SAFE also lauded the resolution.

State Rep. Lori Ehrlich’s landmark 2014 law established a three-tier gas-leaks classification system that prioritizes leaky pipes for fixture by utility companies based on the infrastructures’ dangerousness. And updates to the law passed in 2016, mandate that gas companies not only share information about leaks but also prove that they’re progressively repairing those that they’re “merely monitoring.”

The Marblehead Democrat has said gas companies oftentimes do not suture up gas-leaks in pipes deemed “non-threatening” after breaking asphalt for projects.

“It’s like a surgeon with a patient on the table who came in to have his gallbladder removed seeing an artery gushing, and closing him up without fixing the artery,” she said when the Marblehead Board of Selectmen endorsed her gas leaks legislation two years ago.

Since 2012, Gozemba said, “SAFE has been supporting Massachusetts legislation to protect consumers from paying for leaking gas and encouraging gas companies to fix leaks before roads are repaved and then dug up again.”

Alongside the use of sophisticated technology and the smell of emanating gas, a bumper crop of sickened trees across the city is indicative of the issue’s reach, says Gozemba.

In the early stages of the SAFE-prompted gas leaks’ survey project, she recalled taking Driscoll on “a gas leaks safari” trip with Ackley and Phillips.

“We we’re going down Peabody Street and there were a whole bunch of dead or dying trees one side of the street, an indication of gas leaks,” she said. “Kim looked at me and said, ‘I remember when we planted these trees.’”

On reflection of that moment, Driscoll said: “Both sides of Peabody Street were planted with new trees at the same time, but clearly those on the side with gas present, more troublingly the side close to homes, did not survive. We’re concerned about the loss of trees, of course, but the potential danger to people is even more alarming.”

The concern was so great, Gozemba said, Driscoll called the gas company and reported the leaks on the spot.

In September, Ward 7 Councilor Stephen Dibble filed an ordinance, in part, regarding gas companies’ management and elimination of natural gas leaks in Salem. It was sent to city lawyers for review and is due back before the Salem City Council Dec. 7, said Gozemba.

From the forthcoming forum to Dibble’s proposed local law, Gozemba said the hope is “a bettered schedule around repairing gas leaks and to fix leaks before roads are repaved and then dug up again.”

350 MA Releases 2017-18 Legislative Agenda

SAFE has been collaborating with 350MA and is happy to express support for this year’s legislative agenda. This year’s priorities are renewable energy, improving infrastructure to stop methane gas leaks, and stopping the expansion of gas pipelines that will carry fracked gas to coastal communities for export:

Stop the Pipeline Tax ✧ Oppose any legislative effort to restore the pipeline tax and pursue other legislative avenues to resist fossil fuel infrastructure

Make Utilities Buy More Renewables ✧ Raise the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) so that electric utilities must more rapidly increase the percentage of electricity sourced from renewables to get us on a faster track to 100% renewable electricity.

Put a Price on Carbon ✧ Levy a price on carbon pollution and redistribute the revenue back to taxpayers.

Expand Solar Energy ✧ Raise or eliminate net metering caps, restore the net metering retail rate for all project types including community and large-scale solar, and provide funding for community and low-income solar initiatives.

Fix Gas Leaks ✧ Require that consumers not pay for leaked gas, incentivizing companies to fix leaks faster.

To learn more, and see the bill names and numbers of 350 Mass priority legislation, visit 350 Massachusetts 2017-2018 Legislative Agenda (PDF).

Mayor Driscoll Reflects on SAFE Gas Leaks Project and Council Resolution

kim driscollSalem, September 19, 2017–Last week I was pleased that the #SalemMA City Council voted to endorse the resolution below expressing our shared support for the Consumer Cost Protection Bill, which is aimed at incentivizing utility companies to make repairs to leaking natural gas pipelines. I want to also thank SAFE – Salem Alliance for the Environment for their advocacy and support on this important issue.

Leaking natural gas pipelines are a prevalent and correctable problem, not just in Salem but across our Commonwealth. 95% of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and fully 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be from these gas leaks. These impacts are worsened because as leaked methane kills off city trees, it reduces our canopy and further erodes our ability to combat climate change.

I am proud that Salem is a designated Green Community, that our electricity aggregation sources customers’ electricity from 100% green and renewable sources, and that we’ve made our own strides to reduce our impact on climate change through putting solar panels on schools and the upcoming CLC and converting our street lights to LED fixtures. And I am equally proud to be an advocate for these positive types of actions in my position on the EPA’s Local Government Advisory Committee. All these efforts, however, can be undercut by something as simple as unresolved natural gas leaks.

Importantly, gas leaks are not at the cost of the utility, but instead at the cost of the consumer. We worked hard to procure our electricity supply through Salem PowerChoice for all residents so that we could reduce electric bills and save homeowners money. And we should all be pleased that our prudent financial planning and practices allowed us to realize a $0 change in water and sewer rates this year. But natural gas leaks are a cost directly passed on to Salem consumers, and we need state action to put an end to that. Massachusetts ratepayers pay up to $135 million extra every year because of these leaks. In the Boston area alone, the value of the lost gas amounts to enough to heat 200,000 homes for a year.

We know that only 7% of leaks emit half of the lost gas. Finding and fixing these alone would reduce the amount lost and the wasted ratepayer’s dollars by 50%. In Salem, we have an estimated 55 leaks in just about every neighborhood across our city.

We know we can and must do more to lessen our contribution to a changing climate and this resolution endorsed by the Council is one part of that effort! Being able to save Massachusetts ratepayers millions in unaccounted for gas charges is a double bonus!

Gas Leaks Delay Tree Planting

Dustin D. Luca published the following story in the Salem News (September 19, 2017).

SALEM — Slow, small natural gas leaks are sidelining city plans to plant trees, and local leaders are calling for action to pressure utility companies to plug those leaks.

The City Council is sending a letter to Beacon Hill urging legislators to support a bill that would prevent natural gas customers “from paying for leaked and unaccounted for gas” — a measure councilors hope will prompt National Grid to fix the leaks, which are suspected of killing trees in Salem.

There were more than 60 documented natural gas leaks in the city at the beginning of this year. In 2016, the gas company plugged 99 leaks, according to maps available on HEETMA.org. Gas lost by these leaks is known as UFG, or “unaccounted for gas.”

Although the legislation would save natural gas customers on their utility bills, city councilors were urged to support it by the Salem Alliance for the Environment — SAFE, for short — not to save money, but to protect trees. SAFE says gas leaks kill shade trees by depriving their roots of oxygen.

Throughout the summer, the city conducted a tree inventory on the species of street trees and their health. SAFE often measured natural gas leaks simultaneous to that inventory to look for correlations between dead trees and leaking gas. But in many cases, the information came too late — once the tree was beyond saving or already gone.

That, in turn, has delayed the city’s plan to plant more trees, for fear they will be doomed before they take root.

“We’re going to be planting approximately 219 trees across the city, shade trees along our streets, in the coming year,” said Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley. “Something SAFE has been phenomenal with trying to educate us about … Natural gas really does impact not only our residents, it impacts our street trees.”

Pat Gozemba, co-chairwoman of SAFE, said a recent survey of 20 spots due for new trees showed that “10 of them are poisoned with gas.”

“They’ve already been marked by the city with Dig-Safe marks as the place where the trees will be planted,” Gozemba said. “We know definitely that 10 of those 20 sites we tested are poisoned, and we shouldn’t put trees in those sites.”

On Thursday night, the City Council passed a resolution urging state legislators to support House and Senate bills that “will provide economic incentive to gas providers to develop improved technology and practices for transportation, distribution and storage” of natural gas.

Leaking gas caught in soil “is harmful to vegetation and can kill valuable shade trees by depriving roots of oxygen,” the resolution said. That’s not to mention the possible consequences for humans, considering that methane, an ingredient in natural gas, is “a precursor to ozone formation that can decrease lung function and aggravate asthma,” the resolution reads.

While city leaders are looking to plant trees on more than 80 streets this fall, some are already being put on hold, according to Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll.

The project “is changing based on input from abutting property owners and will also likewise change based on the outcome of gas testing in the tree pit locations,” Pangallo said.

Ward 7 Councilor Steve Dibble pressed for immediate action on the leaks and legislation to fix the issue.

“A gas leak that isn’t in a structure, isn’t in a house, isn’t in a catch basin — it’s in a street — can wait five years (to be fixed),” Dibble said. “(But) it isn’t fair to a neighborhood to be smelling the gas. What happens if they’re smelling it day after day after day, and there’s a leak (in a different spot)? They’re just not going to bother calling it in, because they’ll think it’s the same smell.”

Councilors voted 10-0 to support the resolution, with Ward 3 Councilor Steve Lovely absent.

Tree trimming still on hold.

At the same time, a hold on “tree pruning” in Salem was also extended. That delay first went into effect a few months ago. It prohibits utility companies like National Grid from doing any cutting on trees unless the moratorium is lifted or the city’s tree warden or City Council signs off on specific examples. Emergency pruning is still allowed.

Under an order proposed by Eppley, the moratorium was extended to Nov. 15 with no discussion. A future meeting will dig into the pruning issue.

Looking for gas leaks? Listen to the trees

salem new photo safe gasIn this Salem News article (August 8, 2017) reporter Dustin Luca covers SAFE’s effort to address Salem’s deteriorating gas infrastructure. Photo by: Ken Yuszkus

SALEM — Environmental advocates are looking to the quietest victims to point out natural gas leaks: trees.

The Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE), Salem Sound Coastwatch and city officials are working to find natural gas leaks as the city undergoes a wide-reaching street tree inventory.

There were more than 60 such natural gas leaks in Salem at the beginning of the year, while 99 had been plugged in 2016, according to maps available on HEETMA.org.

“SAFE heard about these gas leaks,” said Pat Gozemba, a co-chairperson of SAFE. “We got concerned initially because we realize that the kinds of gains that Massachusetts was making in terms of renewable energy — or the establishment of more and more renewable energy, which thus cut down on greenhouse gas emissions — was being offset by all the methane gas that was leaking from the aging infrastructure.”

Utility companies have been chasing small leaks in their networks of pipes for years now, as the ingredients in the gas has led to more leaks, Gozemba said.

Decades ago, pipes were put together with jute used to seal connections at joints.

“That was at a time when the natural gas that was coming through the pipeline had a lot more water in it,” Gozemba said.

But as the water content dropped, Gozemba said the jute used in the joints contracted. The result was several slow leaks.

These leaks aren’t necessarily dangerous. They aren’t detectable without a meter measuring the content of methane in the air. SAFE member Dave Rowand said it typically takes an unexplained dead tree to signal where there may be a leak.

Using trees as gas leak indicators isn’t new.

“As part of the training in the gas company, when they send crews out to look for the gas leaks, that’s one of the things they’re told — look for dead or dying trees,” Gozemba said. “That’s an indicator that there could be a gas leak there.”

The reason why? Trees need oxygen to grow.

“Gas percolates up through the soil and can drive out the oxygen, which is necessary for trees to survive,” Rowand said. “Any tree we see that’s distressed, dead or dying, there’s a possibility there’s a gas leak in the vicinity.”

What’s new about this process, however, is the volunteer effort to find leaks that utility companies might have missed. Any number of factors could conceal a small leak. Wind could dissipate leaking methane, for example.

“The hope with the information is that we can give more data to the gas company so they can be more aggressive about fixing these leaks, particularly leaks that are affecting these trees — which are, after all, the lungs of the Earth,” Gozemba said. “We’ll be able to share it with National Grid, and hopefully it’ll get National Grid to repair them.”

Ward 7 Councilor Steve Dibble, who represents southeast Salem, has been a vocal advocate for the trees and what methane, which is an ingredient in natural gas, in can do to them.

“On Buchanan Road, a bunch of neighbors have complained about the quality of the trees — trees dying,” Dibble said, “and two of the neighbors linked it to gas leaks.”

A HEETMA map of both leaks repaired in recent years and current known leaks shows that one leak was fixed Sept. 8 in the area of 20 Buchanan Road. There are no other leaks identified nearby. The next closest leak on the map is on Jefferson Avenue.

“We want to work with the gas company and get these lines repaired, so the study going on to find these gas leaks is a good thing,” Dibble said. “And we need to hold the gas company’s feet to the fire and get them all repaired.”

The LORAX Task Force — a group of tree advocates advancing an arbor-friendly agenda — is hammering out details for a tree ordinance due to be presented to the City Council in the coming months, Dibble said. He also plans to file something with the councilors that would “require a higher level of service to get these leaks repaired and lines replaced,” he said.

“Boston has a good ordinance now that’s on the books, but we don’t have one here in Salem,” Dibble said. “And I think we need one.”