The war against Big Energy is raging on the southern edge of Boston — and it’s being fought by a peculiar troupe of pipeline protesters
On a bright, sunny June morning, just outside of the manicured Legacy Place mall in Dedham, a small posse of protesters meets on Elm Street. They’re trying to halt the construction of a natural gas pipeline that, in the worst-case scenario, will be capable of incinerating a large swath of Dedham and neighboring West Roxbury in Boston.
After passing by the high-end stores in Legacy Place, said local leg of the Algonquin Pipeline is slated to traverse a major thoroughfare, slice through a residential neighborhood, and run across the street from the West Roxbury Crushed Stone quarry, where active blasting happens regularly. Demonstrators have come to speak out against these worrisome plans, and also to support Mike Butler, the chairman of the Dedham Board of Selectmen.
Butler is trying to draw attention to the Town of Dedham’s lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC has the final say about whether this pipeline is built, and by all appearances, the commission wants construction to commence as soon as possible.
It’s worth noting that a small town filing a lawsuit against a federal agency is not an everyday occurrence — it’s markedly unusual. That said, there may be a trend underway, as the Town of Deerfield in Western Mass recently sued FERC, seeking to block another natural gas line. In Dedham’s case, the claims appear to be substantial. The town argues that FERC cut them out of key deliberations over Spectra’s application for the project.
There aren’t many pickets in this neck of the woods, but suburban protesters are upset. So Butler and a range of others — some who protest often, others who haven’t since college 50 years ago — are taking a stand. At the very least, the people of Dedham and the surrounding communities want some kind of say in the mysterious processes involving FERC and Spectra; it’s late in the game, and construction has started, but they’re sick of sitting silent in the dark.
In that sense, things are changing on the southern edge of Boston. And Dedham Town Meeting Member Jessica Porter says she has her colleague’s back.
“Mike’s courage and strength of conviction,” says Porter, who has actively rebuked supporters of the pipeline, “is a real model of leadership for our elected officials.”
Chairman of the Dedham Board of Selectmen and a former manager at Boston Scientific and Gillette, Butler managed to reach middle age without being arrested. But on this day in June, that’s all about to change. Construction of the pipeline is set to begin, and FERC has failed to respond to Dedham’s appeal. Having exhausted the traditional protest route, Butler decides to engage in an act of civil disobedience. The selectman is going to get himself arrested.
In his trademark dress shirt and khakis, Butler stands in the way of a construction crew in an active work zone. He temporarily halts progress on the pipeline, but after several minutes, police handcuff the selectman and drive him away in a squad car. As the cops bring Butler to the station in Dedham Square, protesters chant, “Stop the pipeline! Thank you Mike!” Their frustration now heightened, the demonstrators call out their adversary, “Shame on Spectra!”
Not unlike people protesting the “bomb trains” crisscrossing America, residents in Dedham and West Roxbury are up in arms about what many see as a legitimate threat to their health and safety. Beyond the possibility of an explosion, there are other terrifying potential side effects of having the line run through a residential area. According to a group calling itself Stop the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, those concerns include the danger of environmental contamination from methane, as well as from toxic components like PCBs, arsenic, and radon. Some residents are concerned that they might have to forfeit property because of the construction, while others fear residual plummeting property values.
Stop the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, also known as SWRL, is led by Seamus Whelan. A Westie resident who has run for the Boston City Council, Whelan works full time as a nurse, and focuses on the pipeline issue on his days off. Along with other SWRL members, he often wears a bright red shirt advertising the cause at public events in a display of solidarity.
Butler hadn’t prepared for construction to begin so soon. Spectra was supposed to fire up their heavy equipment on June 29. Despite widespread opposition though, or perhaps because of that pushback against the pipeline, the timeline for the West Roxbury Lateral extension was moved to start two weeks early, on June 16. The reason for the change in schedule, like so much having to do with the pipeline, is unclear.
Spectra Energy Corp. is headquartered in Houston, Texas. That’s far away from Dedham, but the company is attempting to construct a new Commonwealth stretch of their natural gas pipeline (officially called the Algonquin Incremental Market Project, or AIM), the whole of which runs from Texas to Canada.
Regarding the construction in Dedham, Spectra has been demonstrably tight-lipped. When I finally get in touch with a public relations person after multiple attempts, she refuses to let me record our conversation, citing Spectra company policy. Nevermind that Spectra’s policy is to record all incoming calls; I’m not allowed to do the same.
Then there’s FERC, the agency that Spectra contacts for approval whenever they need a go-ahead on projects. According to government documents, the Spectra subsidiary operating in Dedham, Algonquin Gas Transmission, was approved for the pipe plans by FERC on March 18, 2014.
Within a week Dedham officials responded to FERC, sending a request to gain “intervener” status. Following FERC’s refusal to grant that status, six months later, in September, Dedham pols filed another claim on the decision process. FERC stood firm, reluctant to make any effort whatsoever to solicit community input.
The fight has since erupted on several fronts. On April 2, the same day that Dedham officials requested a rehearing with FERC, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and US Congressman Stephen Lynch also sought legal remedies. Nevertheless, FERC gave Spectra the greenlight on June 11, allowing them to start construction only five days later. In a June 12 letter to FERC Chairman Norman Bay, Lynch let loose.
“I understand that Spectra Energy is allowed to proceed despite FERC’s granting a rehearing,” the congressman wrote. “I strongly urge that you immediately conduct the rehearing … and issue a finding as soon thereafter as is practically possible.”
In his own letter, Walsh added, “We respectfully submit that it is unfair and unreasonable for Boston to have to watch construction commence, while its timely made Request for Rehearing remains pending.”
Nothing worked. FERC appears to agree with Spectra, which maintains that the Algonquin is in the best interest of the public, and that the gas it will deliver is needed for generating electricity. The company has also cried poor, claiming that it stands to lose a lot of money if construction stops.
Marylee Hanley, director of stakeholder outreach at Spectra, explains, “The need for our pipeline is to provide service to our existing customers.” Meanwhile, according to a panel of industry experts writing in CommonWealth Magazine last month, “We’re not facing an energy crisis in New England.” They claim that far too much maneuvering happens behind the scenes: “Tens of billions of dollars that we will have to spend updating our energy system will be sunk into expensive, supply-side, grid-scale expenditures just as we are unlocking cleaner, cheaper, and lower-risk solutions.”
It’s late June, and the Westwood Library is holding a public event to give Spectra an opportunity to tell its side of the story. But while 30 to 40 people show up for the meeting, there isn’t a single employee from the energy behemoth among them. Though Spectra agreed to dispatch representatives to speak with citizens and listen to concerns, spokespeople backed out at the last moment.
While Spectra didn’t show, Ellen Fine did. A woman who learned how to organize and galvanize grassroots protest during the Occupy movement in 2011, Fine says, comparing her current adversary to the world’s most notorious agriculture bully, “Spectra makes Monsanto look like environmentalists.”
Also present is Margaret Whitfield, who already has construction for the pipeline underway by her home. Whitfield received a notice about the dig in the mail, but says the correspondence was written in legal jargon that she didn’t fully understand. She knew enough to realize something was wrong, though — very wrong.
“I called my selectman, I called my federal legislators, my state. It’s this process of pointing fingers at each other. I feel like you need to have an engineering degree or you need to be a lawyer to understand all of these processes. The democratic process is a myth. There is no democracy here; it’s run by the big businesses.”
Whitfield has built up a following among fellow protesters, and people pay extremely close attention when she speaks her mind at meetings. She recently asked a community journalist in Dedham, “What do I tell to my kids where there’s a transmission line 15 feet from my living room, and my daughter asks me, ‘Is it going to explode?’” Whitfield asks this question often; it’s clear that she has yet to come up with an answer.
SEARCHING FOR HOPE
I speak with Dennis Teehan, another member of the Dedham Board of Selectmen, several days after a Board of Health meeting gave protesters another opportunity to air grievances. We’re speaking at New England Baptist Hospital, where Teehan works as a physician.
“I think the town has known about this for about two years, before I was elected,” Teehan says. “The process hasn’t happened right. By FERC doing nothing, they’ve effectively taken away our right for judicial review of the project and taken away our right for a second environmental review. It’s really very concerning.”
Teehan continues: “Regardless of your viewpoint about this project or some of the larger issues, what all Americans should be concerned about is the blurry line between the regulatory agency and the industry that they’re choosing to regulate. It seems like — and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong — but I get the impression that FERC seems to be maneuvering in a way that serves Spectra’s interests, instead of, maybe, regulating them.”
With FERC and Spectra apparently operating in sync, it seems that health and safety — of workers, of everyone in areas through which their operations traffic — have been compromised on the federal agency’s watch. The company does not have a clean record when it comes to environmental impact or equipment malfunctions. In Maine, for example, a pipeline owned by Spectra malfunctioned in the Penobscot Bay area on New Year’s Eve two years ago. According to local news sources, the accident resulted in “an emergency shutdown valve blowing open,” and in “a plume of gas 100 feet into the air.”
Regarding the blowout in Maine, Hanley, the Spectra director, states, “There was a malfunction of one of our valves from the compressor station and we had our team on the site in less than 30 minutes. There were no concerns to the safety of the community or the residents.” But residents are concerned. In the past, Spectra has been forced to pay more than $15 million in fines for discharging PCBs along an East Coast pipeline, and according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, Spectra took several decades to clean up these spills. Today, that same pipeline extends through Massachusetts on its way to Canada. In fact, it’s the same artery that Spectra hopes to stretch through Dedham and West Roxbury.
Despite the tenacious opposition to Spectra from both residents and politicians, construction continues. Adding insult to injury, this month Spectra filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston, arguing that the municipality is standing in the way of the West Roxbury Lateral. All together, the ordeal is quickly becoming an extremely complicated legal scrum that could take years to untangle.
A federal court dismissed Dedham’s lawsuit against FERC just last week. There is still hope in the court of appeals though, and in the case of Dedham v Goliath, residents are only getting louder. Their biggest rally up to this point is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Among those likely to attend is Joseph Matthew Hickey, a technical analyst who has lived in Dedham with his wife Cindy for 12 years. At the Dedham Board of Health meeting, Hickey was among the protesters who stood up to speak. “I know a lot of you are saying this is the 11th hour,” he said, “but I feel like it’s two minutes to midnight.”