Legislation aims to plug natural gas leaks

There is legislation moving through the State house that aims to put a clamp on natural gas leaks, a problem one local resident says probably killed several trees on the Arborway.

“Personally, I get upset,” said Sarah Freeman, a member of the Arborway Coalition, who acknowledges some trees on the Arborway have died due to car accidents, but believes several died because of natural gas leaks five years ago. “These trees are important part of the park. [The gas companies] need to do something proactively.”

One person attempting to force the gas companies into action is Marblehead state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, who filed four bills a year ago intended to place tighter regulations on the leaking gas infrastructure.

“There are over 20,000 flammable leaks in the state under our feet, homes, schools and offices,” said Ehrlich. “The leaking gas is poisoning trees and costing communities money to replace them.”

Northeast Gas Association President and CEO Tom Kiley said he doesn’t know if natural gas killed the Arborway trees, but that there is a “host of reasons” why trees in general might die. Kiley, whose association represents gas companies such as National Grid and NStar, mentioned insects, vehicular damage, storms, road salt, gasoline from cars, root damage from construction and natural death as possible causes.

He added that any time natural gas is proven the culprit, the gas company works with the municipality involved to compensate for the dead trees.

Ehrlich said that the reason natural gas leaks are such a problem is because the state has the second-oldest gas system in the country, and it uses corroding cast-iron pipes. She said it would cost about $3,200 per leak to fix.

Bob Ackley, a former gas leak compliance officer, and Boston University professor Nathan Phillips conducted a study last fall that found 4,000 leaks across Boston.

The need for legislation is not only to protect the environment, but also public safety, according to Ehrlich. She noted the recent North Reading house explosion in 2009 where the owner survived because he was away walking his dog. That same year, a Gloucester man was critically injured after his home exploded because of a natural gas leak, the representative said.

Ehrlich said that the most important piece of the legislation, which is currently in the state legislature’s Joint Committee of Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, would establish a natural gas leak classification. Grade one leaks, which are those deemed most likely to cause an explosion, would have to be fixed immediately. Grade two and three leaks would need to be fixed within one and three years, respectively.

Kiley said that fixing all leaks could be redundant. Gas companies are currently replacing the state’s aging cast-iron gas system. Under the legislation, they would be forced to fix a minor leak in a pipe that might be replaced later, according to Riley.

He noted that the state’s Department of Public Utilities, where every leak is reported, deems grade three leaks as not harmful to animals and humans.

“It is the goal of the gas companies to have zero emission from the gas system,” said Kiley. “The leaks are getting reduced.”

He added, “It’s clear we do have an older system. We are working hard to replace that system.”

Ackley said the gas companies have no incentive to fix the leaks because they can pass the cost to the customers.

“They don’t seem to be addressing the issue,” he said.

Ackley, who also owns a methane detection company called Gas Safety USA, gave an estimate of 150 to 300 leaks in Jamaica Plain based on the study in the fall and his past experience.

“More than likely the leaks are not an explosive hazard,” said Ackley. “Otherwise, the gas company would fix them. I’m sure they would be doing the repairs.”

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