On a small and unassuming plot of land sandwiched between Weymouth and Quincy, a mere stone’s throw from the Fore River Bridge, the biggest climate battle in New England rages on. It’s the site where energy giant Enbridge seeks to build a natural gas compressor station, a toxins-emitting facility that will propel more gas through its pipelines. It’s also where an improbable coalition of local residents and allies is the only thing standing in the way of the Canadian corporation’s last component of its billion-dollar fracked gas project, Atlantic Bridge. The enterprise, a multistate upgrade to Enbridge’s Algonquin pipeline aimed at increasing gas transports from the Pennsylvania shales to the northeast and eventually for overseas exports, should have been in service years ago.
But against all odds, a dogged group of Fore River Basin residents decided to put up a fight, the ferocity of which Enbridge never saw coming. Now well into their fourth year, opponents have successfully stalled several of the compressor station’s last remaining permits. Still, the ultimate challenge before them seems almost insurmountable, if not implausible: How does a largely working-class town go up against a multinational conglomerate with endless resources and deep political sway, whose sole business rationale is predicated on burning more and more carbon? How do you convince its stubborn enablers in government that, as the latest science makes crystal clear, if we are to have a chance at averting complete climate catastrophe, no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built?
Beyond the naked emissions arithmetic, however, this is first and foremost a fight over climate equity and fairness. The densely populated area where the station will stand is already burdened by the presence of no less than eleven other industrial facilities. Nearly half of the residents living a little more than a mile from the proposed station—several thousand people—inhabit environmental justice communities. A state report published late last year, which was supposed to assess the potential health impacts from the facility, recommended that they smoke less. And that they exercise more. Yes, this is “progressive Massachusetts” for you.
It’s the same state—as became shockingly apparent during the station’s air permit appeal in May—that does not take into account existing pollution conditions when considering an application for a new emitting facility. This practice, it turns out, is based on some obscure policy paper from 1989, which the Department of Environmental Protection’s own officials admitted in the hearings no one has really read. More importantly, though, are the dire implications for the Bay State’s residents, especially the most disadvantaged ones: No matter how noxious your community’s air currently is, the state’s agency charged with protecting the environment will not add that baseline to its calculus of toxins during the permitting process. The severe pro-industry bias of this policy would be laughable if it weren’t so deadly. Air pollution now kills seven million people annually worldwide.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the same DEP was caught red-handed withholding not one but two sets of air pollution samples it collected from the Weymouth site. Both showed that the area has sustained and elevated levels of several potent toxins, including such leukemia-inducing carcinogens as 1,3-Butadiene. The DEP appeal’s hearing office paid some lip service to the scandal—calling it “unfair” to the petitioners and mildly scolding the DEP—but went on to approve the permit regardless. Massachusetts ignores existing ambient air conditions when considering new facilities, remember?
And the truth is that the project should never have gotten this far in the permitting process anyway—if conflicts of interest laws have any meaning. When it was revealed back in 2016 that the contractor hired by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to review the project was working at the same time for the pipeline company (Spectra Energy then, Enbridge now) on a related project, and, when outed, lied about disclosing the work, FERC just shrugged. Incredibly, the commission even repeated the lie in its approval for Atlantic Bridge. The same deafening silence fell soon after, when it was exposed that the husband of FERC’s own project manager on Atlantic Bridge was consulting for a related Spectra Energy pipeline project.
So, yes, the Weymouth compressor station saga encapsulates all these demoralizing aspects of climate catastrophe, replicated all too often in other energy projects. The conscious suicide of locking in decades of greenhouse gas emissions. The corporate greed. The regulatory capture. The bureaucratic inertia.
But in Weymouth, these layers of corruption also bred its seeds of hope—and, quite frankly, the only fighting chance for the project’s undoing. The tough, dedicated group of Fore River Basin residents, who like many other activists were forced one day from their civilian lives into action when the brutality of the fossil fuel industry appeared unannounced and uninvited in their backyard, see it all now with eyes wide open. Like many other climate battles, theirs is led by women: from Alice Arena, who heads the aptly named group FRRACS (Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station) to Andrea Honore, who’s been sitting in Gov Charlie Baker’s office daily for the past two years in a quiet but potent act of civil disobedience (Baker has yet to grant her a meeting). Collectively, they are at the front lines of the climate wars. And if the past four years are any indication, the Davids of this round will not let up until their— no, our!—Goliath has been defeated.
This article is part of the Special Climate Crisis Issue of DigBoston (9/19/2019, Vol. 21, Iss. 38) produced in cooperation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative organized by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.