Monthly Archives: October 2017

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!

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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.”