Share

Southampton to governor: Consider health risks of natural gas

SOUTHAMPTON — The Southampton Board of Health wrote to Governor Baker earlier this month, asking that before any natural gas infrastructure project — such as a pipeline — is approved, that he require a health impact assessment.

The town health officials joined scores of health boards across the state who have written similar letters. More than 80 Massachusetts boards of health have voted to write letters or have sent letters to Baker, according to Stephen Jones, a volunteer at the Sierra Club — an environmental group backing this campaign — and a retired Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor who lives in Florence. 

“Natural gas — like almost everything else — has risks that need to be taken into consideration,” Jones said. 

As motivation for the campaign, he cited issues like pollution, climate change and gas explosions, like one in Springfield in 2012 and one in the Merrimack Valley in September which killed one person and left 25 injured.

He added concerns with children’s health, as some studies have found gas stoves without ventilation are associated with respiratory issues in children.

In western Massachusetts, Belchertown, Greenfield, North Adams and Longmeadow have written to Baker with concerns this year, following Amherst and Northampton in 2017.  

Amherst’s Board of Health unanimously voted to send a letter in Oct. 2017 that requested health evaluations of future natural gas infrastructure projects and recommended a review of federal and state pipeline infrastructure regulation.

“Natural gas transmitted in pipelines contains contaminants that can cause human illnesses,” the Amherst Board of Health writes, “even in low concentrations.” 

Easthampton’s Board of Health voted to send a letter, with similar wording to that of Amherst, but are waiting for final signatures before sending it, said Bri Eichstaedt, the city’s health agent. Williamsburg is considering sending a letter, but the board of health has not made a final decision, according to Donna Gibson, chair of the town’s board of heath.

Some letters, including one from Southampton, point out that the American Medical Association supports creating rules that would assess the impact of gas pipelines on human health. 

Southampton’s letter writes that natural gas contains volatile organic compounds, “which can cause human illnesses, even at low concentrations. Releases are routine, whether from leaks or maintenance.”

A study led by a Harvard researcher and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 found that roughly 2.7 percent of methane — the primary component of natural gas that is more than 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide — in Boston’s natural gas system escapes into the atmosphere.

The Southampton Board of Health also expressed concerns about pollution created from burning natural gas, both outdoors and inside homes, in its letter.

“The Commonwealth has an obligation to protect the health of its citizens,” the letter reads, “yet, the potential health effects of natural gas pipelines are not being examined.”

When asked if Baker had responded directly to the letters, Brendan Moss, Baker’s press secretary, pointed out that the Department of Public Utilities recently hired an investigator to evaluate the safety of the state’s natural gas system. The original announcement of the evaluation came about two weeks after the Merrimack Valley gas explosions.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com