Cite lack of transparency with proposal as well as concerns regarding gas leaks
By Jennifer L. Grybowski, Contributing Writer
Westborough – The Board of Selectmen heard a presentation from Eversource at their meeting July 28, but it was not the presentation they had expected.
The board hosted a public hearing in regards to Eversource’s Worcester Feed Line Improvement Project in January. The project involves installing nearly four miles of new gas main entirely within public roadways in the heart of Westborough to address a low-pressure issue within the line in Worcester. The January public hearing was well-attended, and following the meeting Town Manager Kristi Williams submitted a letter to Eversource outlining the community’s concerns regarding the project, and also reached out to seek support from the town’s state representatives and senator on those concerns. In addition, Williams, Selectman Syed Hashmi, Fire Chief Patrick Purcell and Sustainable Westborough Member John Metzger have been working to further discussions with Eversource. Some of the concerns included a limited benefit to Westborough residents, and conflict with state and local energy goals.
“We relayed concerns…and asked them to come back and present the responses,” Williams said.
However, they found the July 28 presentation to be similar to the one given in January. It gave general information on the project, reasons Eversource is undertaking the project, gave a projected construction schedule to begin in 2022 and addressed a potential alternative traffic route.
“I was surprised with this presentation,” Williams said. “I thought it was going to be speaking specifically to the issues we raised. Aside from amending the alternate route, you haven’t responded to the town’s concerns.”
“The fact that the presentation tonight was basically a rehash is extremely disappointing and somewhat disrespectful to the board and the public here and not a valuable use of our time and your own,” Selectman Allen Edinberg said. “In my mind, you need to go back to the drawing board.”
“Suffice to say that it feels like Eversource didn’t really hear the public’s concerns the first time around,” Selectmen Chair Shelby Marshall said.
Selectmen were also concerned about the lack of transparent data in the presentation.
“We are being told there is a drop in demand, but there has not been any independent data to substantiate that demand,” Hashmi said. “We are going to be putting in this line, and there is potential we are going to have to pay for this line we may or may not need. Would Eversource commit in writing to the town that we will never have to pay for this pipeline?”
Edinberg also had an issue with the demand data.
“You mention residential growth as a need [for the pipeline] but there is no data,” he said. “The state projection is natural gas will peak in 2025 to 2027 and then will decline. It doesn’t fit in the state plan to move away from fossil fuels.”
Hashmi was also concerned about environmental impacts.
“This goes against our town’s goals on energy efficiency,” he said. “Natural gas has been portrayed as a bridge to the future but it’s only a tether to the past. Every state of this process is linked with environmental health hazards.”
Sean Lauziere, Eversource’s senior community relations and economic development specialist, said Eversource is working toward several sustainable products, such as renewable natural gas.
“We understand there is a path forward that doesn’t just involve natural gas,” he said. “We are looking to become 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2030. The way to do that is involving some of the existing infrastructure.”
In addition to their frustration with the pipeline project, selectmen were also very unhappy with Eversource’s recent response to real and perceived gas leaks in town. If people smell gas, they are supposed to call 911, but many just call Eversource directly. Eversource then dispatches a crew immediately to investigate and if they find a leak, they contact public safety officials.
“It’s not feasible to notify public safety if someone smells gas,” Lauziere said, noting they get many calls that turn out to be unsubstantiated. “They’d be running around all day smelling gas.”
Purcell said he wanted to be notified anyway.
“I do have a concern about gas leaks in Westborough,” Purcell said. “I am confused listening to this presentation, and I have a concern with the emergency response plan. It still thinks there is a gap that exists.”
Recently, Eversource responded to a category 1 leak and notified the chief via an unmonitored e-mail address.
“I don’t think emailing about a leak is sufficient,” Purcell said. “I think those calls should go to dispatch center. I just don’t like the whole way the system is set up.”
He said under the current system he is unable to perform adequate risk assessment and never truly has an appreciation for the volume of leaks that exist.
“The lack of transparency makes me concerned about [the pipeline] project going forward,” he said.
Purcell was also concerned about the logistics of the project, specifically stating that if the line is struck and explodes, it could be a catastrophic event. He also said he’d be looking for mitigation for training in case an incident should occur in the ditch that will be dug for the project.
Selectmen were supportive of Purcell.
“I think Chief Purcell’s concerns should be fixed immediately,” Selectman Leigh Emery said.
Lauziere said Eversource had heard Purcell’s concerns, and had sent a presentation a month ago to public safety officials and have offered a meeting several times to discuss it, but that those offers had gone unresponded to.
The board decided to instruct Williams to write up another e-mail relaying concerns and send it to Eversource for comment.