By Andrew Strecker, Contributing Reporter
Westborough – The safety and environmental concerns of Westborough residents and town officials dominated a public hearing where Eversource Energy representatives outlined a proposed natural gas pipeline running through Westborough and Southborough at the Westborough Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Jan. 14.
Eversource’s Worcester Feed Line Improvement Project would see the construction of a 16-inch, underground, high-pressure gas main beginning at the intersection of River Street and Southville Road in Southborough, continuing along Southville Road into Flanders Road in Westborough and ending at the intersection of Lyman Street and Route 9. Construction would be expected to start in April 2021 and last two years.
The purpose of the project, according to Eversource officials, is to improve the operation of an already existing gas line that serves approximately 31,000 customers.
“Without the feed line improvement project, we will lose the ability to serve existing customers and increase capacity in the region,” said Sean Lauziere, Eversource’s senior community relations and economic development specialist, at the hearing.
“It’s not strictly new demand, although new demand is the crux of it. It’s also maintaining energy supply to people who are already attached” to the line,” he added.
“We feel we’re fast approaching an uncomfortable level,” said Tom Costa, Eversource’s manager of project engineering.
“We don’t want to wait until we get to that point,” added Eversource Senior Gas Engineer Sean Berthiaume.
Westborough residents lined up at the public hearing to voice opposition to the plan.
“It is grossly negligent to run a high-pressure gas line through a highly populated residential area,” said Hundreds Road resident Brad Avergon.
“This route is more convenient for you. It’s not convenient for us,” said Smith Street resident and Conservation Commission Chair Andrew Koenigsberg. He went on to call the project “irresponsible.”
Selectman Alan Falcon Edinberg questioned the proposed route of the pipeline through a residential neighborhood.
“This project sort of cuts the corner from Flanders Road, Route 85 Southborough, to Lyman Street in Westborough as opposed to the existing path,” he said.
“Is there a reason why we’re not upgrading the existing path and adding an additional line?” he asked.
Eversource’s Berthiaume responded, “We did look at following the existing route. It is longer, and Route 9, as everyone knows, poses a very heavy traffic impact and is difficult to construct on. In meeting with [Massachusetts Department of Transportation], they are heavily against us going in that route. That’s not the only reason. The route that we chose is shorter, and we have to evaluate costs, and it would be a cheaper route, as well.”
An alternative route for the pipeline was outlined at the hearing by Eversource, bypassing Flanders Road and utilizing the more commercial Connector Road instead.
“I’m very much in favor of the alternative route” and “will continue to push for that,” said Selectman Leigh Emery.
That would involve using an approximately one-mile stretch of Route 9; something the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is “strongly against,” reiterated Berthiaume.
Westborough Fire Department Chief Pat Purcell said that he is not comfortable with that option. Running a new 16-inch high-pressure gas line along a 12-inch line already existing on Route 9 would be dangerous, according to Purcell. A disruption involving two high-pressure gas lines would be “catastrophic,” said Purcell.
Many residents and officials voiced environmental concerns at the hearing. Selectman Syed Hashmi referenced a recent New England Journal of Medicine article that calls the “expansion of the natural gas infrastructure to be a grave hazard to human health.”
Hashmi and residents also cited the community of Brookline’s recent bylaw outlawing natural gas and heating oil pipes in new buildings.
Peter Dunbeck, chair of Sustainable Westborough, a town advisory committee, said, “We need to stop making investments in fossil fuels.”
Eversource’s Costa said, “I think it will take time for the market to change. No one here knows what the market transformation rate is going to be. We still have an obligation to serve our customers safely and reliably.”
“We have to reduce our carbon footprint and invest in renewables,” said resident Carol Waite. “The time for change is now.”
Eversource has not yet filed for any of the town, state and federal permits and approvals required, including a Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board approval. They plan to begin that process next month. Town Manager Kristi Williams said the town will respond in whatever capacity they wanted to after those filings. Selectmen also agreed to discuss the matter further at their next scheduled meeting.