Area residents address natural gas leaks

  • Employees of Columbia Gas update a line outside a house on Hubbard Ave in Northampton. Carol Lollis

  • Ania Camargo speaks during a forum in Northampton on Thursday to address natural gas leaks across the state. STEPHANIE MURRAY

Published: 6/3/2016 12:13:52 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A group of 40 climate-minded residents crowded into the lower level of the Unitarian Society Thursday evening for a public forum to address the 91 natural gas leaks that exist in the city, some dating back to 1999, which they say are plaguing their neighborhoods and harming the environment.

The forum, led by Mothers Out Front representative Ania Camargo, encouraged community members from across western Massachusetts to pressure utility companies and local and state legislators to plug natural gas leaks in a state where infrastructure is crumbling as it ages.

“You can all go and talk about this,” said Camargo. “Our elected officials are responsive to what you all say.”

Camargo fielded questions from the crowd as she shared her own story of fighting natural gas leaks. Less than two years ago, Camargo read an article in the Boston Globe about natural gas leaks in Boston. She gathered in a living room with her concerned Beacon Hill neighbors and the campaign began.

Now there are 12 teams statewide affiliated with Mothers Out Front, including an Amherst chapter led by Andra Rose.

The push to plug the leaks will not end at the Thursday night forum. According to Rose, a public demonstration to raise awareness is in the works.

An intergenerational march and street theater display featuring a “giant puppet pageant march” will be held in downtown Northampton at 1 p.m. July 2. The presentation will be led by master puppeteer Beth Fairservis, according to Rose.

The same day, a group will take to the streets to flag locations where gas leaks exist, according to data in a Dec. 31, 2015, annual report Columbia Gas of Massachusetts filed with the state Department of Utilities. A meeting to coordinate the flagging will by hosted by Christine Olson at 7:30 p.m. June 9 at 12 Forbes Ave.

During the forum, Camargo advised residents to meet with city and town officials and share data compiled by the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a Cambridge nonprofit that maps leaks across Massachusetts. She said residents should look to their leaders to pass resolutions supporting state legislation that could better regulate leak repair and pass city ordinances to stop leaks on a local level.

According to Camargo, natural gas is leaking into the environment through every step of the distribution process, and consumers are paying for it through what utilities call a “lost and unaccounted for gas” charge.

To combat the leaks, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is spending $80 million annually to replace all cast iron and bare steel pipes across its service area, according to spokeswoman Andrea Luppi. The company has replaced 200 miles of cast iron and bare steel pipes in the past five years, reducing methane emissions by 33 million cubic feet, president Stephen H. Bryant wrote in a letter to concerned Northampton community members.

Luppi declined to say how much gas is escaping from each of the Northampton leaks, as each leak is different, she said. Many of the leaks are classified as Grade 3, meaning the company must monitor them but is not required to repair them.

Camargo stressed that methane emissions caused by gas leaks outpace the speed of pipe replacement. To ease the problem, utilities must repair the existing leaks quickly before addressing replacement. Camargo is leading a “fix leaks first campaign.”

“Call every time you smell a leak, no matter what,” said Camargo. “If you are smelling it, it exists. It’s just a question of where it is.”

Camargo spoke at another public forum earlier in the evening in Springfield, hosted by the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and Arise for Social Justice, before arriving in Northampton.

The forum in Northampton was organized by a partnership of TwoDegreesatGreenNeighbors.Earth, Climate Action Now, Mothers Out Front, Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence Climate Action Group.

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