Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Two recent natural-gas leaks in Rhode Island got the attention of the multinational fossil-fuel companies that own the pipelines. But it’s unclear what exactly is being done to fix the problems and what damage has been done.
A recent report by Steve Ahlquist of RI Future on the March 29 gas leak on Allens Avenue went much further than the traditional media’s focus on traffic delays and the disruption of gas service for Nation Grid customers. Ahlquist found evidence of potential leaching of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into groundwater and other pollutants venting into the South Providence neighborhood.
Heavy equipment arrived at the site this week, to remove what appears to be contaminated soil and excavate a trench where the faulty pipes are buried. The environmental clean-up company Clean Harbors operated an industrial vacuum truck. Coneco Engineers, National Grid and Spectra Energy Partners, the owner of the leaky Algonquin pipeline, were also on the scene when ecoRI News visited.
Workers were reluctant to speak with the media about details of the cleanup. Some wore hazmat suits, while others just hard hats and reflective vests. No company spokesmen were on hand to answer questions. National Grid sent its top security official to the scene soon after ecoRI News arrived. There were subsequent reports that workers were being harassed by media.
In an e-mail, David Graves, a media representative for National Grid, simply described the cleanup as, “It’s part of the ongoing study into what happened.”
The state’s top environmental enforcement agency, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), didn't respond to requests for comments. The type of pollutants released and the extent of the contamination remain unanswered.
The Environmental Protection Agency told ecoRI News that natural gas isn't classified as a hazardous substance and therefore the federal agency doesn't have jurisdiction to respond to the accident, unless asked by DEM or the local fire department.
Don Ledversis, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission inspector for repair and construction of state and federal pipelines, is the only state compliance official willing to talk about the leak. He said the natural-gas leak occurred at a regulator station jointly managed by National Grid and Houston-based Spectra. The rupture occurred during routine maintenance, when a rubber coupling gasket connecting two 12-inch underground pipes broke.
According Ledversis, details on the leakage, emissions and environmental damage is collected and reported by Spectra and National Grid. The companies are also responsible for planning and conducting the cleanup.
Emissions from a major leak include a buildup of oily residue from years of operation. The residue contains a host of toxic emissions.
“I don know what’s in there,” Ledversis said. But, due to the high pressure and years of accumulating, “When it gets a chance to come out, it comes out.”
Ledversis expects a report from National Grid and Spectra about the type of emissions and the amount of leakage.
The extent of the leakage at valve site 38 along the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline in Burrillville is also not known. According to Ledversis, the discharge of natural gas is classified by Spectra as a Grade 3 leak. Despite years of complaints from neighbors of gaseous odors, the leak isn't violating any laws and the valve only requires Spectra to make a single inspection a year, according to Ledversis.
Ledversis said the relief valve is built with outdated equipment and therefore requires costly custom-made parts. National Grid has improved efforts to repair leaks, but Rhode Island still has some 825 Grade 3 leaks. Grade 2 leaks are also allowed to go unrepaired and only require monitoring twice a year so that they don't degrade into Grade 1 leaks, such as the one that occurred on Allens Avenue last month, and require immediate repairs.
“A company would go bankrupt if they had to fix every leak,” Ledversis said.
Spectra recently told ecoRI News that it has been conducting maintenance on Valve 38 and will complete the work by the end of June.
“Our control center continuously monitors the Algonquin system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are keenly focused on protecting the people within the communities where we operate, our employees and our facilities,” said Marylee Hanley, a spokeswoman for Spectra.
Progress is also underway to reduce the noise from the Ocean State Power fossil-fuel facility. TransCanada, the owner of the natural-gas facility near Valve 38, said there will be a meeting between Ralph Billington, who lives across the state line from the power plant in Uxbridge, Mass., and the plant manager at Ocean State Power.
Noise from the power plant and its compressor station has been a nuisance for Billington and neighbors for years. Billington has appealed to police and fire officials and town administrators for help. Frustrated by the lack of support and response, Billington recently solicited 37 of his neighbors to sign a petition stating that noise from the power plant was bothersome. Soon after he submitted the petition to TransCanada the promise of a meeting was made.
“I do hope this time is the charm since we have ongoing issues that you would think could be easily resolved,” Billington wrote in an e-mail to TransCanada.
Two days after the promised call or e-mail, Billington has heard nothing from Ocean State Power.
Burrillville Town Council member Raymond Trinque — an opponent of the Clear River Energy Center, the town's second proposed fossil-fuel power plant — said it's challenging for a small town to push back against multinational corporations with large sums of money and a professional workforce. He said they are also restricted by state and federal laws that supersede local regulations and speed up the approval for industrial energy projects.
“We all have limitations, but a lot of these big power companies that want to move into town, they have no limits,” Trinque said.
Nevertheless, Trinque believes the town will resolve the noise problem, as it has with other disputes with Ocean State Power since the facility began operating in 1990.
“They’ve have had their issues, but we feel the communication level with the town and Ocean State Power has always been high,” he said.