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Weymouth compressor fight has implications for Pilgrim

IN THE 1940s, the Fore River Basin of Weymouth, Quincy, and Braintree was home to major factories, supplied hundreds of good paying jobs, and set the stage to create the industrialized area we see today.

What we didn’t know at the time was the long-term impact the cancer producing byproducts of these companies would have on our environment and the health of residents.

Due to a lack of environmental awareness at the time, there were no regulations that guarded the Fore River employees and neighbors from ingesting the carcinogens that pervaded their environment. In the end, the same factories that helped hundreds of families live good lives, cut short thousands more from diseases now linked to this area.

Just as Fore River residents were grappling with the reality of the consequences of the past environmental hazards from the 1940s, a new risk arose. In 2015, the energy company Enbridge, proposed the construction of a new compressor station in the Fore River Basin. The station would use breakthrough technology to pressurize a natural gas pipeline system to its next checkpoint. To properly operate, however, these stations depressurize every so often by releasing a significant amount of toxic gas into the atmosphere. Fore River residents have fought against the approval of the Weymouth Compressor Station, lobbied environmental agencies, and grappled with the reality of the constraints of our state and federal environmental regulations.

Looking back, there are obvious concerns why the compressor station shouldn’t have been sited in North Weymouth. The compressor station would be the first located on a public use waterway. The site was only 16 feet above sea level and in an environmental justice zone next to a densely populated neighborhood.

In fact, throughout the permitting and approval process, multiple red flags popped up. The data used to approve the air quality permit came from the Blue Hills Reservation air monitoring station situated 11 miles away. The executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, whose organization published the state-ordered health impact assessment which paved the way for permitting approval, put out a statement saying he had “deep reservations about the compressor that don’t happen to be related to the air quality issues at the time of normal operations.”

When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued its final approval for the project, the chairman admitted that FERC likely should not have approved the siting of the station in North Weymouth. All of which legitimized community concerns.

Now, 30 miles south on Route 3 at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, a similar fight echoes the troubled regulatory oversight seen in Weymouth, as citizens of the South Shore and Cape Cod fight for transparency and tougher regulations. Holtec International, the company responsible for the decommissioning of the nuclear power station, which is located on Plymouth Harbor, has proposed dumping over 1 million gallons of nuclear wastewater into Cape Cod Bay.

The proposal for dumping the wastewater into Cape Cod Bay has raised many alarms around the impact of dumping radioactive waste and other pollutants and dangerous materials on our fishing industry, fragile marine ecosystems, and the region’s tourism economy– all of which are drivers behind thousands of local small businesses, jobs, and revenue.

Built in 1972, Pilgrim supplied Massachusetts with close to 14 percent of its electricity until it was closed in 2015, when the owner, Entergy Corporation, announced that the plant was “no longer financially viable.”

This coincided with the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission declaring Pilgrim to be the country’s third least safe nuclear plant. The reclassification of the plant into the “Degraded Cornerstone” column, or one step above a mandatory shutdown, was the result of a multi-year review of the plant’s human performance, procedural quality, and infrastructural safeguards.

This was the death knell for the plant, whose troubled history dates back to 1979 when the plant first began to experience issues just a few years after opening. Over the next four decades, Pilgrim would become the target of multiple investigations by the NRC, and the ire of local environmental and public health advocates who believed that the plant was a “ticking green time bomb” for the region. Operations were halted in 1983 and 1986, and then again in 2013 and 2015.

By the time Holtec International took over Pilgrim from Entergy in 2019, it was clear to many that there was insufficient oversight of the industry. Many feared that without reform in oversight, Holtec would be largely unaccountable for any impact that improper decommissioning would have on surrounding communities. Thankfully, the collaboration with our federal, state, and local partners to prevent Holtec from putting corporate profits over public health has been swift, but currently there are few opportunities for the state to intervene and even less opportunity for public concerns to be addressed or even aired.

If we have learned anything from the lack of awareness of the risks of carelessly discharging contaminants from the Weymouth Compressor Station, it is to never again put corporate profit above public health. In only the second field hearing ever held of his Committee on Environment and Public Works subcommittee on clean air, climate, and nuclear safety, Sen. Ed Markey came to Plymouth Town Hall along with US Rep. William Keating and representatives of Sen. Elizabeth Warren to review Holtec’s plan to discharge nuclear waste into Cape Cod Bay. The hearing shined a bright light on the weaknesses in the NRC’s oversight of Holtec and the lack of transparency of Holtec’s out-of-state upper management.

It is critical that the composition of toxins and their potential effect to our health be disclosed to the public and considered before discharge. Weymouth teaches us that in the Holtec decommissioning, there must be real communication with all stakeholders centralized around the safety, economic impacts, and public health risks for our coastal communities.

And if we have learned anything from the Fore River Basin, it is that we must fully understand the long and short-term impacts that private industry can have on communities and people’s lives. Since the decommissioning of Plymouth’s nuclear power plant is only one of Holtec’s decommissioning projects across the country, it is important not only for Plymouth and the South Coast, but for the rest of the country, that we get it right. The first step is for Holtec to provide full transparency.

Holtec has argued that allowing the public an independent analysis of the chemicals discharged in spent fuel pool water, how far they could travel in Cape Cod Bay, and the potential impacts to our health and our economy would cost them millions, but with $1.03 billion provided to them by the federal government, this shaving of corporate profit is nominal compared to the potential cost of human lives, jobs, and an already fragile ecosystem.

Let’s make sure we get it right this time.

Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth and Susan Moran of Falmouth are state senators in Massachusetts.


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