Northwest Rhode Island gears up for fight against another fossil fuel project

Concerns raised about noise, public health impact

Originally published by ecoRI News, a nonprofit newsroom covering environmental news in Rhode Island. Read more at ecoRI.org

BURRILLVILLE — When Kathy Martley sits outside on her property to have a cup of coffee and enjoy nature, she said it can be a little difficult to find peace.

“You try to listen to the birds out here, and all you can hear is the wacky noise,” she recently told ecoRI News. That noise comes from the nearby compressor station, a stop on the Algonquin pipeline that pressurizes methane (natural gas) to help it move along the way from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Martley lives on Wallum Lake Road near enough to the compressor station to hear it humming, or booming when there’s a “blowdown,” but not as close as some of the other residents in the neighborhood who have complained of smelling gas. (Methane has no odor. Utilities add a harmless chemical called mercaptan to give it the distinctive sulfur-like rotten-egg smell.)

Enbridge, the company that owns the pipeline and compressor station, recently proposed an expansion to the pipeline, and Martley and her group B.A.S.E. fear that could mean more construction, more noise, more smells, and more pollution.

B.A.S.E. stands for “Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion” and has opposed several fossil fuel-based projects proposed by Spectra — now Enbridge, post-merger — and helped successfully advocate against the development of a fossil fuel power plant, a project that was denied four years ago.

In November, after Enbridge announced its most recent expansion proposal, called Project Maple, B.A.S.E. members, including Martley, decided to picket it.

Martley’s protest and her decision to bring the issue to the Town Council are an effort to take a proactive approach, she said.

At this stage, Enbridge has posted an “open season” memo, calling on local methane providers to let the company know if they require more fuel that an expansion could accommodate, something the company will be required to prove is needed in the region to get approval from federal regulators who oversee interstate energy pipelines.

Documents detailing how the project could impact Burrillville’s compressor station have not yet been filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) or the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB), the federal and state agencies that regulate the process.

Enbridge did not return a request for comment by press time.

Until the paperwork is filed, it is unclear how an expansion of service may alter the Burrillville station, but Martley worries about how construction may impact the wildlife around the area and increase noise around the neighborhood. Blowdowns, a process of routinely releasing gas and pressure on the pipelines through the compressor stations, already causes loud disruptions, and she worries a pipeline expansion may require more of them.

“We should already be changing over to more sustainable stuff,” said Martley, adding that she believes the state should be moving away from methane and toward cleaner renewable energy.

Natural gas is non-renewable and releases greenhouse gases when it’s burned. Much of the natural gas that runs through U.S. pipelines comes from Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which has been found to pollute water and set off seismic activity.

On top of the potential nuisance and environmental factors, Martley said she is also worried about the public health concerns that the compressor may already pose.

Clara Frazier and Nihal Guennouni, members of Virginia Scientist Community Interface, a volunteer group of scientists who works to make science accessible to the public, are two co-authors of a recent paper evaluating some of those risks.

Through the process of re-pressurizing gases, compressor stations emit methane and other compounds, according to Frazier.

“All of these emitted chemicals have been proven time and time again to have negative impacts on human health,” she told ecoRI News, including lung disease and asthma. The Biden administration recently announced stricter standards for methane emissions and includes rules for more monitoring of methane leakage from compressor stations.

The noise the stations make can also have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health and anxiety, Frazier added.

Ultimately, the paper recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency implement stricter air quality standards and perform more testing.

Guennouni said she hopes the study can be used by those who live near the stations or who may one day see them come to their part of town, noting they are usually built in places that are economically or socially disadvantaged.

Regulations do require public comment, she said, “but whether or not they’re actually taking that into consideration is where the problems occur. … These people deserve to know, and deserve to have a say.”

Nick Katkevich, an organizer for the Sierra Club who got involved in organizing against fossil fuels in Burrillville several years ago when he was a part of the FANG Collective, said B.A.S.E. plans to continue its advocacy and may start to lobby legislators and the governor on the issue.

“We’re really at the very, very beginning stages of the fight against Project Maple,” he said. “We’re definitely trying to be proactive.”

Burrillville is not the only community with residents voicing concerns over the pipeline expansion, which could impact areas around the Northeast. A letter signed by dozens of local groups opposing changes to the Algonquin pipeline is being delivered to top officials around the region, he said.

“In the past fights against those previous expansions, that’s something that really worked, you know, coming together regionally and supporting each other’s efforts in local communities,” Katkevich said.

Martley said she is ready for yet another fossil fuel fight.

Although with this most recent round of activism she may “poke a bee’s nest.” Martley noted, “Algonquin’s not going to call us.”