In a surprise move that threw a controversial fossil fuel project into a whirlwind, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) late last week revealed new evidence of toxins in the area of a proposed natural gas facility in the greater Boston area.
The sequence of events leading to the disclosure was set in motion by DeSmog’s recent revelations that the state had not released air pollution data, including evidence of carcinogens, which were collected from the proposed site of Enbridge’s gas compressor station in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Now, DEP’s air permit for the compressor station, which is currently under appeal, is teetering.
On Thursday evening, May 16, as a three-day hearing on the appeal was nearing a close, the DEP released an amended air quality report it received the prior Monday from Alpha Analytical, a private lab it contracted last summer to test the air at the proposed site.
The new, 758-page report updated an earlier report Alpha Analytical submitted to the DEP in August last year.
Both reports were based on analyses completed last summer by the lab (and due to the nature of the data collection method, running new analyses is not possible). Because the compressor station would release some air pollutants as it keeps natural gas pumping through pipelines, establishing the existing pollution levels at the proposed site helps inform how it might increase those levels for the surrounding community once the facility is in operation.
The amended report indicated the presence of at least 12 toxins not previously included in the earlier report, including elevated levels beyond state limits of the carcinogen 1,3-butadiene. The presence of these newly reported toxins is consistent with ones detected in other samples the DEP sent at the time from Weymouth to a state lab in Rhode Island — another batch of data that was withheld from the public but which DeSmog revealed last month.
It was this revelation that apparently prompted the DEP to request the amended report from Alpha Analytical.
A comparison of the two reports reveals that other than the newly reported toxins, another chemical — acetaldehyde — that was detected in several samples in the older report is absent from the same samples listed in the amended one.”
The first air quality report released by DEP, showing elevated acetaldehyde levels.
The latest air quality report released by DEP, which does not show acetaldehyde levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies acetaldehyde as a probable carcinogen.
Both 1,3-butadiene and acetaldehyde will be emitted by the compressor station.
The DEP and Alpha Analytical did not respond to requests for comment about the discrepancies in the acetaldehyde values.
Presiding Officer Berates DEP
On Monday this week, Jane Rothchild, DEP’s hearing officer presiding over the appeal, scolded the agency for the eleventh-hour data dump, calling it “unacceptable.” She suspended the hearings and threatened the department with sanctions, ordering it to disclose its recent communications with Alpha Analytical and explain why it shared the report with the parties in the appeal three days after it received it from the lab.
In response, a senior DEP official said in an affidavit today that the department received the first batch of new data from Alpha Analytical on May 10 — nearly a week before the DEP publicly released the lab’s entire report. The official explained that several other officials at DEP, including its general counsel, had to review the report before its release, which explains the delay.
Air Permit Based on Partial Data
The DEP also admitted it had only partial air data when issuing the air permit. According to the department, it had originally asked Alpha Analytical to test for 64 toxins, but the lab produced a report for only 40 of those. Once it discovered the discrepancy between the two target lists — apparently after DeSmog’s reporting last month on the Rhode Island lab tests — the DEP requested that Alpha Analytical furnish the extended report.
This implies that throughout the health impact assessment (HIA) for the station, which lasted for six months, the DEP was not aware it was working with a narrow toxins list.
But documents obtained by DeSmog through an open records request poke holes in DEP’s version. The original lab request to Alpha Analytical and invoices the lab sent the DEP last summer state that it was working according to the narrower list, known as the MCP TO-15 (for Massachusetts Contingency Plan).
The lab made a similar indication in an email to DEP staff in August 2018.
And an internal DEP document in preparation for a public meeting during a health risk assessment stated that 40 toxins are being analyzed.
The DEP did not provide comment in time for publication.
Health Impact Assessment Agency Retracts Conclusions
The drama continued on Tuesday, when the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the agency contracted by the state to conduct the health impact assessment (HIA) that informed the air permit, essentially withdrew its support for the assessment’s original conclusion, which did not anticipate human health effects from building the fossil fuel facility. It was this conclusion that greenlighted the air permit.
Citing the newly revealed data, the MAPC said that “the conclusions of any HIA cannot be assumed to hold if new information comes forth, particularly new data that may suggest an increase in risks to people's health.”
In its statement, the MAPC called for considering the cumulative effects of the facility’s emissions, as well as investigating safety concerns and climate change impacts — issues that were beyond the scope of the original assessment.
Activists have been encouraging the MAPC to take a public stand against the assessment, at times excoriating the agency on social media.
“We appreciate the professional integrity that the MAPC demonstrated in making their statement,” said Andee Krasner of the group Mothers Out Front, following the agency’s statement. “As a public health professional, I was heartened to see that they included the need to understand the cumulative impact of the current pollution burden and emissions from new sources. There is ample data to demonstrate the compressor is a danger to health, a danger to safety, and will significantly add to greenhouse gases.”
Main image: Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Northeast regional office. Credit: Mass.gov, public domain