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.

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