Columbia Gas of Massachusetts says it has begun repairs on over 200 gas leaks throughout its service area in western Massachusetts. The utility is fixing leaks that can harm the atmosphere.
The repair program targets previously unrepaired “Grade 3” leaks and makes good on a pledge the company made earlier this year to community organizers and environmental activists. Until now, repairing leaks that do not a pose a risk to life and property had not been a priority for Columbia Gas.
In January, Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, announced a new program to prioritize the worst of the leaks and begin immediate repairs.
"We will be undertaking this as rapidly as we can," Bryant vowed.
The utility estimates there are about 2,400 Grade 3 leaks in its service territory that consists of 60 cities and towns in western Massachusetts. That number includes 560 leaks in the city of Springfield and about 90 leaks in Northampton.
Columbia Gas spent the last few months surveying, measuring and prioritizing leaks for repair based on the estimated significance of a leak’s environmental impact. More than 200 leaks are targeted for repair by the end of the year.
The change in the company’s leak repair strategy came at the urging of members of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition who initiated a series of meetings with Columbia Gas Co. officials last year where they highlighted the harm methane gas leaks do to the atmosphere.
After those meetings, Bryant announced a goal to identify the highest emitting leaks and come up with a plan to reduce the number of leaks by 10 percent every year.
" What we quickly came to when we collaborated is that it is the methane issue that drives this, and if we solve the methane problem we'll take care of any other issues at the same time," said Bryant.
Jesse Lederman, director of Public Health and Environmental Initiatives at Arise for Social Justice said Columbia Gas took seriously the activists’ concerns and the result is a major shift in the way a gas distributor prioritizes repairs.
" The actions by Columbia Gas are one of the finest examples of corporate responsiblity and stewardship that we have ever seen," said Lederman.
Marty Nathan, a physician and environmental activist from Northampton, said the new repair program should be a standard for the gas distribution industry.
"Methane in many ways is cleaner than coal and oil when it is burned, but is not cleaner when it is drilled or comes from leaky pipes," said Nathan.
A study in Boston estimated that the largest Grade 3 leaks waste about $1,400 worth of gas a year. It costs an average of $4,000 to repair a leak, meaning there is a return on investment in less than three years, according to Audrey Schulman, president of the Home Energy Efficiency Team, a Massachusetts non-profit that promotes initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.
" By fixing those you are saving money for the ratepayer and helping the environment," said Schulman. " It is a smart and practical and farsighted action to take and Columbia Gas is way way ahead on this."
Most of the natural gas in Massachusetts is transmitted under the streets in cast iron pipes that are more than a century old. Bryant said Columbia Gas aims to replace all that aging infrastructure over the next 15 years.