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.

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