No Urgency to Fix Natural-Gas Leak in Burrillville

Valve site 38 in Burrillville, R.I., is leaking natural gas, but the response to fix it has been slow. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Valve site 38 in Burrillville, R.I., is leaking natural gas, but the response to fix it has been slow. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Valve 38 represents the risks and perhaps accepted collateral damage from natural-gas power plants and pipelines. According to area residents and local officials, the valve site about a quarter of a mile from the Ocean State Power facility has been leaking natural gas for months and possibly years.

Uxbridge, Mass., resident Ralph Billington has been jogging near the fossil-fuel facility for more than a decade, traversing the roads near the 560-megawatt power plant. Billington said he has reported the smell of sulfur — the rotten-egg-scented chemical mercaptan added to natural gas to detect leaks — at Valve 38 near Sherman Farm Road dozens of times over the years. When he first noticed the odor, Billington called the emergency phone number posted on a sign at the valve station.

“I’ve waited for hours and no one shows up,” he said.

He has raised the matter at local meetings and with police and fire officials, but the response was tepid. The odor continues.

“I’ve never been able to get anyone’s attention to this,” Billington said.

Last October, Billington started calling 911 to report the leak. The calls produced little more than a cursory response, he said. In those instances, a fire utility truck responded promptly, then waited about 20 minutes for a repair person from the pipeline company to arrive. Whatever work, if any, performed on the valve, he said, failed to fix the problem. The smell endures.

Billington’s repeated calls to Spectra Energy Partners LP, the Houston-based owner of Valve 38 and the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline, has only led to frustration. But he’s learned over the course of several phone conversations with Spectra employees that the valve is outdated, too expensive to replace and, therefore, will continue to leak an unmeasured amount of natural gas.

Local officials familiar with the situation confirmed to ecoRI News the persistent leak and Spectra’s reluctance to replace the faulty valve.

Spectra didn't responded to multiple requests for comment, but several fire-safety experts have also confirmed that the valve is leaking natural gas. Harrisville Fire District chief Mark St. Pierre told ecoRI News that Spectra has issued a work order to repair or replace the valve. But, he said, a custom valve must be made and then tested before repairs can begin. Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in October.

Billington said he heard the same promise of repairs from Spectra in previous years.

The Texas corporation has a large presence in Burrillville. A subsidiary operates the 1,129-mile natural-gas pipeline that runs through the northwest corner of Rhode Island. The pipeline fuels Ocean State Power and feeds into a massive compressor station on Wallum Lake Road.

Neighbors living near the compressor station complain of a persistent, low rumble, as well as periodic and jarring “blowdowns” that wail like screeching jet engines. The noise has only worsened since Spectra added larger, more powerful engines that increase the volume of natural gas moving through the pipeline.

In addition to noise, compressor stations release harmful emissions. Toxic plumes appear during venting and blowdowns. The chemicals in the emissions are linked to a host of illnesses, including cancer. Residents report a prevalence of asthma they blame on air pollution from the compressor station.

Ocean State Power also produces noise pollution. Billington and other neighbors complain that the facility roars and screeches when the plant is generating electricity, as doors that buffer the sound are often left open to vent heat from the building. A compressor station at the power plant also emits loud explosive sounds as gasesous buildups are ignited. Billington said calls to Ocean State Power, TransCanada, the power plant's owner, and the police are met with skepticism.

“The town is sweeping the power-plant issue under the rug because of the tax revenue,” Billington said.

A spokesman for TransCanada recently told ecoRI News that the power plant's doors are always closed during operation, and that Ocean State Power hasn't received noise complaints.

In addition to Ocean State Power, a second natural-gas power plant is moving forward. If built, the proposed Clear River Energy Center would have nearly twice the energy output of Ocean State Power. The $1 billion project, being developed by Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, is sited next to the compressor station, raising concerns of greater noise, air and water pollution, and destruction of habitat in one the state’s largest corridors of contiguous forest.

Local and statewide opposition to the Clear River Energy Center has been vigorous since the project was announced in 2014. The Town Council opposes a new power plant, as do Burrillville’s representatives in the General Assembly. But public opinion has little influence on the decision to approve or deny the fossil-fuel facility. Instead, the three-member Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), an entity within the state Public Utilities Commission, decides if the application meets the criteria: the need for the power plant; cost justification; environmental impact; and socioeconomic impact on the state.

Opponents have been trying to have the application thrown out on a technicality, but so far have been unable to derail the project. Public hearings are expected this summer and, if the schedule holds, a decision from the EFSB is expected this fall.

Without knowing the extent of the leak at Valve 38, it’s unclear if it can jeopardize new projects or serve as an acceptable cost of doing business as outlined by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. However, a pipeline valve leak in North Weymouth, Mass., has upset town officials. The leaky valve is on Spectra’s Algonquin pipeline and a well-organized opposition is fighting the company's plan to build a compressor station in town.

Opponents of increased natural-gas infrastructure have called for efforts to quantify the leaking of natural gas from pipelines and related facilities so that it can be determined if the so-called benefits of natural gas outweigh the harm to health, the environment and its contribution to climate change.

"It's outrageous and it's astounding, how little we know [about leaks]," Boston University researcher Nathan Phillips wrote in article for Scientific American.