Resistance campaign airs concerns over Columbia Gas pipeline project  

  • Students hold signs and chant in opposition to a Columbia Gas pipeline project during a forum at First Churches in Northampton on Tuesday night. The event was sponsored by a coalition of groups that have launched what they call the Columbia Gas Resistance Campaign.  COURTESY OF RENE THEBERGE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2018 11:52:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Even though a Columbia Gas pipeline expansion project could bring more natural gas to the area, an organized effort is underway to prevent expanding this infrastructure over environmental concerns, including release of methane, which critics say is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The launch of the Columbia Gas Resistance Campaign was announced at a forum Tuesday at First Churches Northampton where about 75 people gathered to voice opposition to the pipeline expansion. A resolution opposing the project will come before the Northampton City Council Oct. 4.

Sheila Doiron, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, told the Gazette prior to the forum that the company’s reliability project, first announced in November 2017, has not changed and is necessary for meeting the natural gas needs of the region’s businesses and homes.

Columbia Gas imposed a moratorium on Northampton and Easthampton in 2015, meaning that no new connections to its supply line would be allowed.

“The basic premise is that it’s a reliability project that will ensure an adequate supply of gas for the customers we’re obligated to serve in uninterrupted fashion,” Doiron said.

As a multidimensional project, with each of the five pieces dependent on the next, Doiron said no work has yet begun. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which feeds the 20-mile Northampton lateral pipeline that serves customers in Northampton and Easthampton, is still looking for a new point of delivery in a non-residential area of Longmeadow. That point of delivery must be in place before an alternate backfeed, which would run between Agawam and Holyoke, can be built, as well as replacing 8,500 feet of the ConEd line in Springfield, enhancing a compressor station in Agawam and building a 2-mile pipeline loop in Agawam.

Dr. Marty Nathan, a steering member of Climate Action NOW, told those at the forum Tuesday that the current climate crisis requires putting brakes on the gas company’s plan. While she wants leaks in existing pipes fixed, she said adding more natural gas to the system is not necessary. She said people are increasingly understanding the dangers of the toxins in the gas and how methane and carbon dioxide are warming the planet.

“We’re talking runaway climate change,” Nathan said. “This requires immediate slashing of emissions to prevent catastrophe.”

This year’s forest fires in the West and the recent Hurricane Florence are evidence of this problem, she said.

“Climate change is no longer the future, or maybe something we can ignore — it is now,” Nathan added.

Susan Theberge, co-founder of Climate Action NOW, said communities can be better off without more natural gas and that the Northanmpton-based Success Without Additional Pipelines is showing this.

“We still have a brief window to preserve a livable world,” Theberge said.

Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell said the scope of Columbia Gas’ project is one that he believes city councilors are likely to oppose.

City Council President William Dwight and Councilor Alisa Klein have drafted the resolution and public input is being sought on it at the council’s Oct. 4 meeting.

“I would like to see a unanimous vote against the building of fossil-fuel infrastructure south of Northampton, especially if it will be done in the city’s name,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell said real economic harm has come from the moratorium, even though projects such as The Lumber Yard Apartments rising on Pleasant Street have survived and other developers have done well. But the city is at a point where it can do without more natural gas, he said.

“I think we need a new direction as a city, as a commonwealth, as a country,” O’Donnell said.

Doiron said that if the Columbia Gas reliability project is completed, it may allow more natural gas connections in Northampton and Easthampton, but that is only a “collateral benefit” and not the primary purpose. Columbia Gas has reached its limit with 13,500 customers in the cities served through the Northampton lateral and a natural gas moratorium has been in place.

Nathan said there needs to be a cultural change both in Washington and on Beacon Hill regarding fossil fuels. She said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Department of Public Utilities have never seen a pipeline they didn’t like.

Jo Comerford, the unopposed Democratic candidate for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester Senate District, said she will push to expand infrastructure for 100 percent renewable energy, adding that it is a mistake to believe that cities and towns can’t do well economically without new natural gas pipelines.

“This is a false choice and we together can reject it,” Comerford said.

Comerford said her priorities once in the Senate will include lifting the solar net metering cap, so that more projects can be built, pursuing legislative support for efficiency and storage, and implementing a carbon fee and rebate program to discourage the use of traditional fuels.

Moving expeditiously on renewable energy is a promise of the new legislative delegation from Hampshire and Franklin counties, Comerford noted. The delegation is also expected to include fellow Democrats Lindsay Sabadosa, Mindy Domb, Natalie Blais and Daniel Carey, all of whom are running for state legislative seats in November.

Sabadosa, the Demcoratic nominee to become state representative for the 1st Hampshire District, said she also wants to pursue environmental justice for residents of cities such as Springfield, where asthma is at high levels, and Lawrence, which was recently rocked by the Columbia Gas line explosions.

Stephen Jones, a public health expert who previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said natural gas is not clean, as it contains contaminants such as volatile organic compounds, radioactive elements and heavy metals.

And it can explode, illustrated by the disaster in the Merrimack Valley this month, he said. “There are plenty of episodes where natural gas pipelines explode,” Jones said.

Five individuals who are leading resistance campaigns against natural gas expansion in Holyoke, Springfield, West Springfield, Longmeadow and Easthampton also spoke during the event,

Connie Dawson, the Easthampton leader, said she wants to have people better insulate their homes and get educated about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Such projects are already happening in Northampton, Nathan said, including the Button Up Northampton 2.0 program that will make homes more energy efficient.

As important, Nathan said, is curtailing more natural gas being put into the current system.

“We’ve got to fight for systemic changes,” Nathan said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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