Nearly two years ago, a group of environmental and climate justice activists seated around a wooden table learned of a plan to construct a new pipeline running through Western Massachusetts. This Springfield Climate Justice Coalition meeting in February of 2018 marked the beginning of an ongoing fight between community members opposed to pipeline expansion and two gas corporations, Columbia Gas and Tennessee Gas.
The proposal these organizers learned of, opaquely named “Columbia Gas’s Reliability Project” was twofold: for a new pipeline in Longmeadow and Springfield, and a larger pipeline crossing through five communities (West Springfield, Agawam, Easthampton, Northampton, and Holyoke). Tennessee Gas was to build a metering station, meaning a starting point for a gas line, on Longmeadow Country Club property, in a residential area near Wolf Swamp School. This station would connect to a new Columbia Gas pipeline, which would run up through Longmeadow and Forest Park, emerging in a residential neighborhood of Springfield, passing by a daycare and family homes. Columbia gas representatives said in a statement that these “projects are designed to meet the challenges for uninterrupted and reliable service to customers.”
For Longmeadow resident and Columbia Gas client Michele Marantz, this was “a transaction that would financially reward [these corporations] but would really penalize our community.” She, among others, was concerned about the health and safety risks that gas pipelines pose, especially to young children. They can release dangerous chemicals into the air that damage the health particularly of more vulnerable populations (like young children), and are prone to explosion. Columbia gas’s pipelines exploded in the Lawrence-Andover area in the Merrimack Valley in 2018, causing over 80 fires, 25 injuries, and 1 death. LHS junior Thomas Coulouras says he has friends who “during the period of heightened explosions in the Lawrence-Andover area were scared and saw explosions happening right next to their friends’ houses. We need to address this problem immediately so our community does not take on the same problem that my friends’ communities have.” Thus, with these concerns in mind, Marantz and her colleagues launched the Longmeadow Pipeline Awareness Group (LPAG), which has been working alongside Arise for Social Justice in resisting the Longmeadow-Springfield pipeline, and other groups opposed to the other, larger pipeline in the Pioneer Valley.
The LPAG began their fight by going to the proposed site of the metering station first: the Longmeadow Country Club. In November of 2018, the group advised the Club to vote against selling the permission (the easement) for Tennessee Gas to use 2 acres of their property to build the station, but the approximately 300 Country Club members voted almost unanimously to sell the easement. “The metering station provides a control should gas need to be turned off should a situation arise like what arose in Lowell a couple of years ago. As I understand it, the metering station allows gas to be turned off as needed, which cannot occur currently…it’s a safety issue as I understand it. LCC benefitted by $2.7m from this transaction which is greatly needed for course improvements,” says Burt Dietz, a voting member of the LCC. At that point, Marantz knew “it was going to be a struggle. We were going to have to organize and really educate the community.”
Over the next few months, Marantz and her colleagues continued to organize. Activists in Northampton like Marty Nathan, part of the Columbia Gas Resistance Coalition successfully pushed their city council to refuse pipeline expansion in their city this past winter. Holyoke’s mayor Alex Morse followed suit in April. Just a few months ago, on October 11th, Columbia Gas announced that they were cancelling their plans to construct the new pipeline through West Springfield, Holyoke, and Northampton–without the Holyoke and Northampton markets, the pipeline would be useless to them. Columbia representatives said “the costs associated with the [project] are not in line with expected project and customer benefits,” while committing to “continue to remove leak-prone pipe and offer energy efficiency measures and load management solutions to maintain the safety, reliability and efficiency of its natural gas distribution system in Northampton as well as the rest of its service territory.” Nathan described this victory as “a historic one modeling what local communities can and must do to fight climate change in routine energy planning.”
But in Longmeadow and Springfield, the fight has proven to be longer. At the May 2019 town meeting, a set of bylaws was passed, declaring if any metering station came to town the facility must meet stringent and high standards to prevent leakage, as well as mandating monthly inspections. In June, Longmeadow voters passed a non binding resolution encouraging exploring the option of giving the town the right of first refusal, meaning they could decide to reject the proposed construction rather than the Country Club, and purchasing the land where the pipeline is to be built with town money. Owning this land would mean the town was in control of decisions about its possible usage for the metering station. In August, a special town meeting was held at which a bylaw passed that banned the construction of any industrial gas facility in a residential zone. This bylaw is now being considered by the Massachusetts’ Attorney General’s office for approval.
But for the moment, all of this is in suspended animation. Columbia Gas is under a moratorium, meaning they can’t construct new pipelines, after a recent leak in new pipelines installed in the Merrimack Valley to replace those that exploded in the past. However, it remains a contentious and looming question for many in communities that stand to be impacted. Katy Pyle, the Environmental Justice organizer at Arise for Social Justice at during much of the pipeline fight, says that “there is still more work to be done as the pipeline is still set to go through Springfield…This fight is about ensuring our communities are safe and healthy for years to come.” For her and the communities fighting back, it’s about “corporate greed, climate change, and environmental injustice.”