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As Trees Die, Leominster Residents Blame Gas

September 30, 2018

A decaying stump on the edge of Winter Street in Leominster, where residents are blaming the death of some of the neighborhood's trees on gas leaks. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / Peter Jasinski Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LEOMINSTER -- As a lifelong city resident, Richard White can recall the ancient trees that lined many of the city’s streets when he was a child.

“I remember as a kid running up and down Merriam Avenue and it was just a canyon of trees. It was fabulous. Now there’s almost nothing,” he said.

The trees that have gradually been cut away over the decades were removed for varying reasons, but the trees that were taken down two years ago outside White’s Winter Street home he suspects were killed by a natural gas line leaking underground.

“These were old trees. One they cut down that was killed by the gas was about 100 years old and probably 8-feet in circumference,” he said. “It’s a piece of history that’s gone.”

When reached for comment about possible complaints customers might have been lodged about gas leaks killing trees in the city, National Grid, Leominster’s natural gas provider, responded saying that it’s very difficult to prove whether a gas leak had been the culprit.

However, the company also said that nearly half of its 122 miles of gas distribution lines in Leominster are “leak prone,” which is almost twice the state average. National Grid spokesman Bob Kievra said this is largely due to the age of Leominster’s lines, which are made from cast or wrought iron and unprotected steel.

“Massachusetts is home to the second-oldest gas distribution system in the country after Baltimore with some of its infrastructure dating back over a century. Of National Grid’s approximately 11,000 miles of gas main, about 3,000 miles, or 29 percent, is cast iron and bare steel pipe, which is more susceptible to leaks,” he said. “The cast iron in and of itself does not deteriorate. The problem with older cast iron pipe is usually related to the fact that its joints were sealed with jute. Over time, the jute has dried out and has started to leak and these joints need to be re-sealed.”

In the 18 months leading up to July 1 of this year, National repaired 228 leaks in Leominster, but as of mid-September, the company reported that there were still 71 active leaks throughout the city. All but one of these leaks are classified as Grade 3 “posing no imminent risk to public safety.” One has been classified at Grade 2, which National Grid says “are non-hazardous, but justify scheduled repair based on potential future hazard.”

According to Kievra, approximately 25 percent of Grade 2 leaks eventually grow to Grade 1, which “have traditionally been defined as hazardous.”

While these leaks may not pose an immediate health risk to humans, some, like White, have a more pressing concern with the impact on the environment.

The town of Brookline filed a $1 million lawsuit against National Grid in 2010, alleging leaks in the company’s gas lines had caused the death of roughly 400 trees. That suit was settled this year, with the town receiving a sum of $139,000, but it also attracted the involvement of environmental protection groups like Mothers Out Front, which launched a “ghost tree” campaign to bring awareness to the issue by placing signs at the sites of trees allegedly killed by gas leaks.

Susan Helms Daley, a member of Mothers Out Front’s leadership team and former environmental consultant with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, challenges National Grid’s notion that it’s difficult to prove gas killed a tree.

“It’s not easy, but it’s doable,” she said. “If you’re seeing repeated tree mortality in a certain spot near a known gas leak, that’s one good clue. There are also growth patterns experts can identify. Through several layers of analysis, it’s not hard to narrow down.”

Though towns like Brookline have had to take gas companies to court to get the money needed to replace trees, Leominster benefits from a state-funded program through the Department of Conservation and Recreation called Greening the Gateway Cities, which allows any city resident or business to request to have trees planted on their property free of charge.

The program launched in 2016 and has already planted hundreds of trees in Leominster. Throughout that time, program coordinator Ashley Hoffman said she’s yet to hear from any resident requesting a tree be planted to replace a tree killed by a gas leak.

“With the people I’ve talked to, I’ve never heard them complain about gas killing their trees. If the roots grow down deep enough, they could interfere if they’re near the pipelines, but I don’t know of any that have died because of them being near the lines,” she said.

Patching leaking pipes will continue in Leominster, but National Grid says it plans to replace entire sections of leak-prone pipe over the next 25 years. Kievra said the company is also working to integrate “environmental considerations” into its replacement and repair policies.

“We are working to address methane emissions in a safe, efficient, and workable manner, which balances keeping costs reasonable for customers, who pay for main replacement and repair,” he said.

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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