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Report points to leaking gas pipelines as another reason to move swiftly to renewable energy

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A gas explosion in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts in 2012 destroyed a strip club and damaged dozens of other buildings.

Explosions and fires are not occasional incidents

A new report on natural gas pipeline leaks calls for Massachusetts to speed up the shift to renewable energy sources.

Pointing to federal data that there were almost 2,600 major natural gas leaks between 2010 and 2021, roughly one every 40 hours, Deirdre Cummings of MassPIRG called for a moratorium on building new natural gas pipelines.

“We should be prioritizing investments in the infrastructure that gets us off gas, not new infrastructure that keeps us hooked up to leaking pipelines,” she said.

The report released by MassPIRG, Environment Massachusetts, and Frontier Group, comes as Eversource is seeking state permits to build a controversial new natural gas pipeline between Longmeadow and Springfield and as Beacon Hill is considering legislation to greatly accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables

According to the report, there were 34 gas pipeline incidents in Massachusetts between 2010-2021 that were serious enough to report to the federal government. One of these was the series of explosions and fires in three communities in the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018 in which a teenager died, dozens of people were injured, and hundreds of homes destroyed.

“House explosions and leaking pipelines aren’t isolated incidents but the result of an energy system that pipes dangerous explosive gas across the country and into our neighborhoods.” Cummings said.

Opponents of the proposed Longmeadow-Springfield pipeline point to the Merrimack Valley disaster in their arguments against the project. Eversource said the new pipeline is needed to back up aging infrastructure that if it were to fail would leave 58,000 Springfield residents without gas service potentially for months.

Since 2014, state regulations have required utility companies to assign a grade to gas leaks. Grade 1 leaks are considered a hazard and must be fixed immediately. Grade 2 leaks are considered “non-hazardous” but must be repaired within a year. Grade 3 leaks are required to be monitored but not fixed.

Data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities show the gas companies have a hard time keeping up with leaks – as soon as one is repaired, a new one appears, said Sarah Griffith of Gas Leaks Allies.

“The number of gas leaks never go down,” Griffith said. “We fix 14,000 a year, then they find 14,000 additional.”

Along with safety concerns, leaking methane gas significantly contributes to global warming, said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts.

He said gas leaks resulted in 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane gas released into the environment from 2010-21 or the equivalent of 2.4 million passenger vehicles driven for a year.

“This almost certainly underestimates the real impact,” Hellerstein said.

Environmental activists in Springfield announced an agreement in 2017 with Columbia Gas officials to accelerate gas leak repairs. Eversource, which took over the service territory of Columbia Gas in 2020, is honoring its predecessor’s commitment.

According to an Eversource spokesperson, the utility plans to replace over 16 miles of leak-prone pipeline in Springfield this year. There are 14 Grade 2 leaks that the company will repair by the end of the year. The spokesperson said the company expects to fix at least 55 of the 263 Grade 3 leaks currently on the books.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.