Natural-Gas Pipeline Expansion Draws Crowd

Opponents concerned about project's health and environmental impacts

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Upgrading the pipeline compressor station in the northwest corner of Rhode Island is no small task. The proposed project requires several pieces of mammoth equipment and significant real estate. Critics say it also comes with major environmental risks.

If state and federal regulators permit the Algonquin pipeline expansion, a new 15,900-horsepower engine will be installed at the Wallum Lake Road facility to boost the flow of natural gas along the 1,127-mile pipeline. The project also needs 16.5 acres of working space at the site, including 6 acres of forested land.

The new engine would join two existing turbines, along with cooling and venting systems, that push the gas to the next compressor stations 50 miles away. Three large warehouses at the site house the machinery and help muffle the nonstop, low rumble that is audible from at least a mile away. The compressor station also releases toxic gases such as benzene, formaldehyde and styrene.

In all, the Algonquin project entails about 40 miles of new pipeline between New Jersey and Massachusetts, including upgrades to five compressor stations, such as the one here.

To spread the word about the health and environmental concerns of the pipeline project, teams of college students are spending their summer break traveling by bike to cities and towns in New England.

“There’s not a lot of knowledge about what it means for the community,” said Alissa Zimmer, one of this summer's riders with the environmental activist group Climate Summer.

The six-member southeastern New England team is visiting Burrillville for 10 days, sleeping and preparing meals at the Slatersville Congregational Church. Days and evenings are spent reaching out to residents and local officials in hopes of coordinating an opposition movement before they had back back to campus.

“We’re just helping the community to engage,” said Zimmer, 19, who will be entering her second year at Northeastern University this fall.

Kathy Martley lives about a half-mile from the compressor station. The pipeline facility drones perpetually like a slow-moving freight train rolling past her wooded 8.5-acre property. She joined the anti-pipeline movement in June after an activist canvassing her neighborhood visited. She has since spoken out at a Town Council meeting and even entered a float in the town’s Fourth of July parade expressing her opposition to the project.

“Nobody knows about (the risks). They have no idea what they are putting in (at the compressor station),” she said.

The Algonquin pipeline and the local compressor have been operating since 1953. At 56, Martley has lived much of her life hearing noise from the massive pump station, including annual vent blowouts, unaware of the potential risks. Now she’s worried about emissions, chemical and gas leaks, and fires and explosions.

“It’s ruining what everybody lives here for,” she said.

Martley and other opponents of the expansion project believe the pipeline is too old to withstand an increased flow of natural gas, a flow put under higher pressure so that more natural gas can reach terminals in Boston and Canada. They worry that the gas comes from fracking fields in Pennsylvania — meaning the pipeline is party to the ills of the controversial natural-gas extraction method. There also are the risk of maintaining a pipeline, they say. Several pipeline accidents occur annually, such as a fire at a New Jersey compressor station in 2013 that injured 13 people.

The owner of the Algonquin pipeline, Houston-based Spectra Energy, says the facility is inspected annually and will continue to meet any and all safety standards.

“We manage our facility to be state of the art,” said Marylee Hanley, a company spokeswoman.

Spectra Energy hopes to begin construction here next year and finish in 2016.

Martley and activists groups, such as the Green Party of Rhode Island and FANG: Fight Against Natural Gas, have been putting pressure on local, state and federal officials to hold a public hearing. So far, the Town Council has been noncommittal. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is reviewing an air-quality permit from Spectra. DEM officials say the size of the project doesn’t merit a public hearing, but hasn’t ruled out the idea.

“I don’t have a decision on it,” DEM Director Janet Coit said.

Rhode Island’s congressional delegation has made inquiries, at the behest of environmental groups, about holding a hearing. An environmental impact report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is expected by mid-December.

Town Planner Tom Karvitz said he will likely call for a hearing once Spectra submits a project plan. “It wouldn’t hurt to do it,” he said.

Spectra held two public meetings on compressor station upgrades in 2013. Both were lightly attended. Martley said notices for the hearings were buried in lengthy reports of the project mailed to abutters. The environmental risks were also unclear in the documents Spectra Energy sent, a problem she said makes it hard for residents to understand the local impacts.

She credited the Climate Summer riders for helping foster community pushback. In addition to knocking on doors, the bike-riding activists setup a Facebook page and Twitter account for Martley and the local organization she now heads, Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion (BASE).

“They’re all good-hearted kids who care about the future. That’s something the adults don’t care about,” Martley said.

The group will soon leave Burrillville and bike to a church in Natick, Mass., where they will help opponents of Algonquin projects outside Boston.

Overall, Zimmer said, residents in Burrillville and elsewhere want to help the cause once they understand the risks. “There seems to be some genuine interest (from the public) to get involved,” she said.