By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
REHOBOTH, Mass. — Voters, by a landslide, recently opposed a proposed natural-gas compressor station by a vote of 2,261-224, and now the Board of Selectmen is deciding what to do next.
Despite public outcry, board members have avoided taking a stance on the project since it was introduced in 2015. The compressor station is part of a massive buildout of natural-gas pipelines, storage facilities and pump stations across southern New England. Spectra Energy of Houston along with for-profit utilities National Grid and Eversource Energy are pushing a group of projects, called Access Northeast, to increase the volume and availability of natural gas in the region. They argue that “system reliability” will lower energy costs and keep the heat and lights on.
The compressor station is sited for a private, undisturbed 10-acre lot in the northeast portion of town, near the border of Seekonk and Attleboro and Pawtucket, R.I.
The towns of Seekonk and Attleboro passed resolutions opposing the project. Rehoboth, however, hasn't been willing to take a stand despite pressure from opposition groups such as Citizens Against the Rehoboth Compressor Station (CARCS).
At its April 4 meeting, the day after voters rejected the fossil-fuel infrastructure, the Board of Selectmen demurred from passing an explicit resolution opposing the project and instead discussed writing a letter. A call from ecoRI News to board president Frederick “Skip” Vandals Jr. for an explanation wasn't returned.
Harmful emissions from the compressor station worry opponents of the project. Compressor stations release particulate matter and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. They also discharge nitrogen oxide, which triggers respiratory ailments like asthma. Compressor stations also leak the potent greenhouse gas methane, as do power plants, which are fueled by the pipelines.
Although rare, compressor stations do catch fire and explode. They emit a constant rumble from their massive engines — the Rehoboth project proposes a 10,320-horsepower gas engine — and they periodically release loud and toxic “blowdowns.”
In addition to Rehoboth, opposition has organized across the region against Access Northeast and other natural-gas projects. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, Attorney General Maura Healey and state lawmakers oppose natural-gas projects due to the belief that energy efficiency and renewable energy can meet future demand. Gov. Charlie Baker supports the projects.
Spectra insists that the projects remain on track and that construction could begin in months, despite the fact that funding for the $3 billion expansion has been stalled by the state Supreme Judicial Court, which declared a ratepayer subsidized program unconstitutional.
“Algonquin will continue working with state and federal agencies, as well as other stakeholders, to help close gaps in legal authority that are currently prohibiting the region from achieving significant reliability and cost benefits, as well as environmental goals, as coal and oil generators remain on-line longer because natural gas is increasingly unavailable,” Spectra spokesman Arthur Diestel said.
Diestel wouldn't comment on the vote in Rehoboth.
Local resident and CARCS organizer Tracy Manzella wants to make sure the public is aware that the recent vote is nonbinding and the fate of the project lies with the fossil-fuel friendly Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
At the April 4 board meeting, Manzella delivered a draft resolution for the selectmen to consider.
“With a 90 percent voter margin, our group has gotten the overwhelming support it needed to get our Board of Selectmen to take immediate measures to let Spectra know that Rehoboth does not want any part of their project," Manzella said. "At last night's meeting CARCS submitted a draft resolution along with ordinances for consideration by the board before they publicly finalize their plans. We hope Spectra hears us loud and clear."