DEP Shows New Air Quality Data in Compressor Case
BOSTON — State environmental regulators on Friday introduced hundreds of pages of air quality testing data, surprising parties at a days-long appeals hearing on an air quality permit for a controversial natural gas compressor station project in Weymouth.
The hearing at the Department of Environmental Protection headquarters was scheduled to wrap up Friday after nearly 24 hours of cross-examination, but the process will now stretch on longer.
The 759-page data packet, based on air samples from August near the site of the planned station, was provided to the state Monday and released to parties in the appeals hearing Thursday night. Its introduction added tension to an already-controversial process.
A hearing officer overseeing the appeal described the state’s three-day wait in forwarding the potentially relevant report to attorneys as “unacceptable,” while experts who oppose the project warned the new data indicates existing pollution levels that are higher than officials had previously acknowledged.
“This is very concerning data,” said Nathan Phillips, a scientist and Boston University professor who testified against the plans on Wednesday. “Even more concerning is why it was only provided after the second day of the three-day appeal hearing. DEP received this data Monday evening, so we’re scrambling to understand what’s going on with this data, but something’s broken in this process.”
Energy giant Enbridge is seeking a compressor station in Weymouth near the Fore River as part of its Atlantic Bridge project to connect natural gas pipeline infrastructure. The state issued an air-quality permit for the facility, a key step toward final approval, in January, but residents and the communities of Weymouth, Quincy, Hingham and Braintree appealed the decision, prompting a three-day hearing this week.
As part of the permitting process, the DEP sent air samples from Weymouth near where the compressor would be placed to Alpha Analytical, an independent laboratory, for testing. The data returned helped inform a February health impact assessment in which the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, tapped by state officials for the task amid public concerns, concluded the station would not have significant health effects.
However, what the department received for the health impact assessment was not the full range of Alpha’s work, DEP attorneys said Friday. At some point in the past few weeks, staff requested any additional information available and on Monday received a 759-page report reflecting further tests of the Fore River-area air samples, they said.
The DEP then informed attorneys for Enbridge and for the appeal party about the new data on Thursday evening after the hearing had wrapped up for the day, prompting complaints from the latter group that the revelation came too late in the process to allow for sufficient review.
Hearing officer Jane Rothchild, who works for the DEP, said the sudden revelation created a “problem” for the hearing process, describing the three-day wait for the DEP to provide it to attorneys as “unacceptable.” The hearing was scheduled to conclude Friday — a timeline outlined by a court order — to allow DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg to issue a final ruling by June 28.
DEP attorneys said during Friday’s hearing that they provided the information to fellow parties as soon as was “responsibly” possible and do not believe it would change the results of the health impact assessment. But the station’s opponents quickly argued that the data was damaging.
Phillips, who was one of the individuals to appeal the air-quality permit, said the new report showed concentrations of 1,3-butadiene, a carcinogen described as “relevant” to the proposal in the HIA, at more than 10 times the DEP’s allowable ambient level. Because the station would be located close to designated environmental justice areas that already have elevated levels of cancer and respiratory illness, Phillips said, the state should not allow the station to open.
“This is an environmental justice community,” he said. “They’re already overburdened with toxins, and these data have shown that we have carcinogens at 10 times the ambient allowable level that were unreported and unreceived until last night.”
The hearing will continue beyond the initially scheduled conclusion Friday to allow participants to review the new information fully and offer any relevant testimony. A clear timeline was not set by the afternoon, though, and Rothchild stressed that she wanted to prevent unnecessary delays.
“We have to go through with a fine-toothed comb and look at all of the differences between the previous data and what we received last night,” Phillips said. “It’s a trove of new data, and we have to have the ability to carefully go through and see what new disclosures are in there.”
A representative for Alpha could not be reached for comment Friday on why the information was requested in recent weeks or provided Monday. Approached during a pause in the hearing, a DEP attorney declined to comment and directed reporters to contact the department’s press office. A spokesman did not respond to questions.
The proposed compressor station has drawn significant outcry from residents who warn that it would create health, environmental safety problems in a densely populated area. Within half a mile of the shoreline facility are more than 950 residences, according to a report from the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Advocacy blog DeSmog also previously reported that separate samples from the Weymouth site tested in Rhode Island showed higher levels of pollutants, information that was not included in the assessment despite being delivered to the DEP before it was published.
State officials argue, though, that they took every necessary step to validate that the station would not violate any standards. Witnesses for Enbridge testified this week that formaldehyde and benzene released by its operations would be within federal limits and that opponents were incorrect in their portrayals of the effects.
It is not clear if the new Alpha data will prompt any change in approach or any updated study from the state. MAPC Executive Director Marc Draisen told the News Service that he became aware of the updated information after reading social media posts about it Friday but had not yet spoken to anyone at the DEP about it.
Staff at the MAPC — which completed the HIA but then later came out in opposition to the compressor station over separate public safety and climate concerns — will study the updated data over the next few days, Draisen said.
“All of us should always be interested in new information,” he said. “I just can’t judge that right now not having reviewed it.”