The organization is calling upon Eversource to address the leaks and damaged trees
(Somerville Wire) – The organization Mothers Out Front, along with 250 Massachusetts residents, other organizations, and political leaders filed a complaint on July 23 with Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and the Department of Public Utilities. The complaint concerned gas leaks in gas distribution lines on Somerville Avenue that have led to the death of City-planted trees between Porter Square and Wilson Square. Through this letter, the authors are calling for the company Eversource to repair the leaks and reimburse the City for lost trees.
“I live right next to the gas leaks,” said Cate Mingoya, who submitted the complaint. “I have been really concerned about the tree canopy cover. … With a climate crisis coming, it’s really important for us to start investing in shade equity, so that we can keep our utility costs down, so that we can keep our community safe. There’s children and seniors that live in my neighborhood … who are really vulnerable to heat.” She added, “I reached out to the Somerville City arborist [and asked], ‘Hey, I noticed that all of the trees along Somerville Avenue are dead or dying, between the Porter Square station and Wilson Square. Are you folks planning on replanting it?’ And Vanessa [Boukili] said, ‘We did some testing in some of the [tree] wells and found that there was gas. We can’t replant it, until it’s fixed.’ That started me looking into, okay, if we need trees there, then we need to get these gas leaks fixed.”
According to the complaint, Bob Ackley from Gas Safety USA, along with Somerville residents, tested the gas leaks using a portable propane/methane natural gas detector, in June 2021. While the amount of natural gas below the pavement should be at 0%, they found that natural gas readings ranged from 15% to 90%. As a result, the trees in this area have shown signs of severe distress. Mingoya added that this part of Somerville is particularly vulnerable for several reasons. The sidewalk where the trees need to be replanted runs adjacent to an above-ground section of the diesel-run Fitchburg line commuter rail, contributing to poor air quality. Somerville Avenue is also a major transportation corridor, with commuting motorists and trucks, another factor leading to bad air. Many pedestrians trying to access the shopping center have to walk along a hot, unshaded, and polluted stretch in order to pick up their groceries and prescription.
Chris Dwan, a member of the Somerville Alliance for Safe Streets and co-chair of Somerville’s Urban Forestry Committee, said that Eversource has not been particularly responsive to complaints, although the company did make repairs at 701 and 727 Somerville Avenue, according to an Eversource representative.
“There are so many important issues in the city and in the region, that my opinion is that we need to focus on places where they intersect and where there’s a cross cutting reason for a bunch of members of the community to come together and speak up,” said Dwan. “For me, as I’ve looked at this, we all know that combustion of fossil fuels is contributing to climate change. The thing that made me angry was the blasé approach of the gas utility, to say, ‘We’re not obligated to fix these leaks.’ It is an obligation. They do prioritize. … Risk of explosion is their top priority. And damage to property is next. The answer to, ‘When are you going to fix them?’ was functionally, never. We’re just wasting this resource, and it’s damaging civic infrastructure that works directly against a problem that is caused by that combustion.”
Senator Pat Jehlen has been active in advocating for repairs to the gas leaks, and she said that what is happening at Somerville Avenue is an example of a larger problem. In September 2018, pressure in natural gas lines, owned by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, led to a series of explosions in the Merrimack Valley area. Gas leaks continue to be an issue in Massachusetts, but Somerville has demonstrated that community activism can play an important role in addressing the situation.
“I think that we need to do something about the natural gas leaks,” said Jehlen. “… I would like to know if we can use some of the new infrastructure funds to get Eversource and the other providers to move up the schedule for the gas leak repairs. Are there more things the State can do to expedite the closing of gas leaks? I think it’s been very helpful to have this local example, with a lot of community involvement …” She added, “It’s an example of the importance of community engagement, of people getting involved and getting organized.”
On August 10, Eversource submitted a response to this article, which can be found below:
“We focus every day on and take very seriously our role to provide safe, reliable service to our customers while being responsible environmental stewards. We’ve been in regular contact with city officials and residents, as well as our regulators, about our work to maintain a safe natural gas distribution system and to repair or replace aging infrastructure that can cause leaks.
This includes concerns specific to Somerville Avenue, where we’ve completed several repairs within the last year and also continue efforts to make additional repairs. Moving forward, we remain committed to open lines of communication with local and state officials as we continue this important work to safely and reliably serve our customers while maintaining environmental responsibility.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.