Nathan Phillips crouched next to a manhole. He stuck his nose in a venting grate to sniff.
“Yup, that’s a leak,” he said. A strong smell of natural gas rose from the sewer line.
Around him, the physical evidence of gas line repair work – road patches, yellow spray paint, “bang bar” holes in the pavement covered by little, plastic NStar badges – littered Natick’s Grove Street by the North Main Street intersection. Dead trees, struggling trees and browning grass bordered the road.
Phillips is a Boston University professor who, for years, has championed the issue of unrepaired and unreported leaks.
Dressed in running shoes, shorts and a T-shirt, he sat on his legs by the leak. He pulled a black box with a dipstick, reminiscent of an over-sized, medical grade thermometer – a Combustible Gas Indicator or CGI – out of his backpack.
He stuck the dipstick into the same slot he’d stuck his nose. It read positive for methane gas.
“Leaks tend to migrate down a line,” he said. Once the company fixes a spot in the pipe, gas pressure will puncture another hole.
Across the state, officials believe there are close to 25,000 leaks in natural gas lines. Most of them receive “grade three” legal status, which means the energy companies have no obligation to fix them. Unless it’s concentrated in a way that could lead to explosions, the gas continues to spill into the ground and then the atmosphere unabated.
In 2014, when the state passed legislation aimed at fixing gas leaks, it relegated the leaks to three grades. Grade one indicates the risk of an explosion. These the gas companies need to fix right away. Grade two means the leak has less of a risk but could grow worse. Those the company has six months to fix. Grade three leaks can go on leaking forever, so long as the company monitors them. Of the 25,000 leaks, officials estimate only 2,000 are grade one or grade two.
In Natick, there are 147 unrepaired gas leaks, according to an Eversource report filed with the DPU in March. The oldest one has been leaking since 2011. In Framingham, there are 230. The oldest has leaked for 10 years. In both towns, that averages to eight every square mile.
Milford and Franklin have about 50 each. Milford’s oldest is 2011 and Franklin’s is 2009.
On the ground level, natural gas, which is roughly 95 percent methane, creates thick, toxic ozone that leads to respiratory problems such as asthma, especially in children and the elderly, and strangles plant life around it. Roadside trees, often called “shade trees,” fall victim to gas leaks. They die slowly over time as they absorb the gas through channels designed for oxygen. The roots suffocate.
Gas companies call the leaks “lost and unaccounted for gas.” It’s just figured into the rate formula. Roughly 2.7 percent of gas is lost every year, according to Phillips’ research.
On a climate level, the leaks alone make up an estimated 10 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas inventory. That’s as much as all the factories in the state, said Audrey Schulman, a utilities consultant turned activist and president of Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) – “and it’s a lot easier to fix the leaks than stop the factories,” she said.
A short walk down the street, Phillips stood at the base of a large roadside tree. Its dead limbs spindled out of a rotting core. Small tufts of leaves and new branches – what Phillips called “stress growth” – peppered otherwise dead wood. He estimated the tree to be about 70 years old and in the last leg of its life.
Phillips took a tool called an increment borer out of his pack. With the motion of a corkscrew, he burrowed the tool into the tree. Once in place, he slipped a thin rod inside and twisted. He used it to pull out a slab of the tree’s core. It’s kind of a biography, he said. At about the 10-year mark, the wood was rotten.
He then went back to the CGI. He stuck its dipstick into the hole he created with the borer. Again, he found traces of methane gas.
A leak was reported in September 2014 at the intersection where the tree sits. Low pressure and medium pressure gas lines – steel lines, if the spray painted markings on the road are accurate – run by the tree’s roots. A service line to a nearby condominium runs next to it as well.
Michael Durand, a spokesman for Eversource, the company that supplies Natick’s natural gas, said the piping by the tree had recently been replaced by new, synthetic plastic piping. The plastic piping is more efficient and does not corrode as easily, he said. The gas company has a long-term plan to replace most of its aging pipe with plastic, he said.
Much of the tree is beyond repair, said Phillips, but with some arborist care, it could revive itself. That is, if there’s no more leakage or roadwork damaging the roots.
Not much has been made of tree deaths in MetroWest or the Milford area. According to Bob Ackley, a gas leak expert, the last civil case concerning MetroWest tree deaths was in the 1930s.
But in the Greater Boston area, where several thousand leaks have gone unrepaired, roadside trees have been the subject of a host of lawsuits filed by the city against gas companies.
Most dead trees are removed before the cause of death is examined, said Phillips. Dead trees along the side of the road are a liability and a safety hazard.
Ackley, a former gas company worker turned leak activist, has been documenting tree deaths for years.
MetroWest and the Milford area, in the 1980s and 1990s, had inefficient steel systems that “leaked like a spigot,” said Ackley. Roadside trees would drop and be removed before any investigation.
“Towns just don’t have the time or money to pursue things like that,” he said.
In the case of the Natick tree, it’s a moot point. An employee of the condominium developer at the scene said the Natick Tree Warden just gave the developer the OK to take down the dying tree. The employee wished to remain anonymous as he’s not authorized to speak publicly.
It was Ackley who first approached Lori Ehrlich, a state representative based in Marblehead, with some ideas for gas leak legislation.
In the 2014 session, Ehrlich filed the bill that would eventually lead gas companies to make their leak reports public, and give them more incentive to carry out repairs.
She’s sponsoring two more bills this legislative session: one that would require gas companies to fix all gas leaks under a road before it’s repaved.
“It’s like a surgeon with a patient on the table, going in to pick out a gall bladder, seeing an artery gushing, and closing him up without fixing the artery,” she said of the way gas companies handle repaves now.
The other would prevent gas companies from figuring “lost and unaccounted for gas” into their rate formula. In other words, the company would have to foot that bill, not the customer. This would create an added incentive for companies to fix their leaks, said Ehrlich.
Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, filed both bills in the Senate. Each bill has 50 to 60 sponsors.
“I’m hopeful we can do something,” said Ehrlich. The bills are in the early stages of the legislative process. They’ve yet to see a hearing.
Environmental activists are hopeful, too. Joel Wool, of Clean Water, said the first bill made great progress, but it’s not enough. The two bills in session right now are crucial, he said.
“It’s not a radical policy. It’s saying literally don’t rob your customers,” he said. “It’s not an abstracted policy, it’s how we are maintaining infrastructure. how we are taking care of our communities.”
Looking ahead, Eldridge has new legislation in mind. If town officials had the ability to fine gas companies for leaks left unfixed, he said, they’d probably get around to fixing them faster.
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