(A homemade elf placed in front of the Weymouth compressor station stands for local children put in its danger. Photo: flaminggashole – Instagram)
Local folks on the South Shore held a whimsically grim show of resistance to the toxin spewing, catastrophically explosive, greenhouse gas emitting compressor station force-built in their community with an Elf Gathering on December 20. Residents, including this “natural” gas compressor’s opposition group, the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS), placed 310 elf effigies in the park, next to the shut-down compressor, to symbolize the 3100 local children who live or go to school within a mile of this immense public health and safety hazard .
(The procession traversing The North Parcel to the Elf Gathering in the park next to the new compressor station. Photo Credit: Elf)
As the Weymouth compressor station begins to fire-up operations you can walk the narrow shoreline park at King’s Cove in Weymouth MA, along-side this disastrous facility, greeted by the sprightly faces of elfin dolls and figurines, many homemade, posed playing in the bushes in trees by the hundreds. What is conveyed by these homespun gestures is unmistakable, that children here have been put in horrible peril. This display of elves both cheery and grotesque, merry and mischievous is able to hit a dire tone while being accessible, humorous, poignant and surreal.
(Elf effigies have been placed in the park next to the compressor since the beginning of construction to watch and stand ground. Photo: Elf)
Behind these fanciful, frolicsome elves is the plight of local residents, already living with staggering levels of airborne toxins. They are confronted with the long-term risks of developing deadly disease, that can only increase with the compressor’s chemical emissions, as well as the threat of instant death by incineration. Standing there in the park you’d be only mere yards away from the 7,700-horsepower compressor, a massive piece of methane gas infrastructure that if exploded would immediately vaporize you along with everything within 1000 feet, including homes.
“Natural” gas compressors are usually sited in more rural areas away from large numbers of people but a conflate/deflate of data allowed the proponents to wrongly claim this densely populated urban area was rural. This working-class area, The Fore River Basin, is in sight of the Boston skyline, on the Weymouth/Quincy line just south of Dorchester. The Fore River also runs through Braintree and has been a workhorse for industrial coastal Massachusetts. This area hosts many industries including power plants, fuel storage and distribution, a hazmat facility and also pumps the sewerage for 14 other communities. Part of the major metropolitan area of Greater Boston it is adjacent to the more affluent towns just to the south. It’s is hard to imagine this huge, loud, odorous hazard ever being sited in one of the quaint, high income, by-the-sea towns or in Boston proper. These elves are the totems of resistance in a sacrifice zone.
This is not a local “nimby” (not in my backyard) issue as it is sometimes reflexively assumed and dismissed. An accident here could paralyze the region’s power, transportation, home heating oil delivery and knockout sewerage treatment causing raw sewerage to be dumped directly into the ocean. Insidiously, the acceptance of the Weymouth compressor siting has also set a dangerous national precedent for the fossil fuel industry’s ability to impose its dangerous infrastructure on large populations of people. It will be easier now that an Overton window has been cracked.
A compressor is the machinery that pressurizes “natural” gas, methane to push it through pipelines, across regions and eventually to storage, market and customers. The Weymouth compressor is the lynchpin in a scheme to pipe fracked methane from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania up to Canada, most likely for export to China and Europe. “Natural” gas is a greenhouse gas, a potent driver of climate change making this compressor a planetary issue, not only because of the volumes of greenhouse gas it will emit but also for the additional infrastructure it will facilitate with more methane put into our atmosphere. The Weymouth compressor enables the expanded and continued use of “natural” gas, expected to operate for the next 40 years. The compressor station was built to accommodate a total of 5 compressors leading to one critique to characterize it, “fully operational, a fossil fueled plant destroying deathstar”.
(Sunset over a shutdown compressor. Photo: Elf)
Originally this compressor was justified to meet local energy needs but it has been well documented by the state of Massachusetts that there is no such need. This was confirmed by the market with major energy companies Eversource and National Grid, the biggest corporate customers for the gas, pulling out of the project before construction started. It appears that the Weymouth Compressor was built out of reckless speculative greed. The push to build this methane compressor may have been powered by the great hope of an energy industry destined to go the way of steam power and whale oil. The game seems to be to keep markets expanding, to prolong the use of this dinosaur fuel deep in the 21st century maximizing “natural” gas investments, the old meth-pushers scheme.
Despite the relentless marketing of “natural” gas as clean, it is a dirty fuel. It is thought that “natural” gas is on a par with coal when you total up the environmental damage it wreaks. “Natural” gas, methane, cuts a path of destruction from the ruining of ground water around the sprawling frack wells to the disposal of its complex chemical wastes into streams and waterways, to its radioactive waste problem, to the environmental degradation from the millions of miles of pipelines and infrastructure, the leaks, fires and explosions. Methane leaks are incredibly prevalent, an invisible problem for the public. We are now finding that the devastation comes right into our homes where new research on indoor air quality has made a connection to negative health impacts from living with a gas stove or heater.
The story of how the Weymouth compressor came to be is a simple story really: powerful people get what they want. This compressor was built by one of the biggest, most powerful energy corporations in the world. The story is made unnecessarily complicated by the complex array of people, willing to suppress their humanity, who were needed to pull this off legally with plausible respectability. Placing a hazardous, potentially catastrophic, poisonous piece of industrial methane infrastructure in the middle of residential neighborhoods was previously thought impermissible but if you obfuscate the obvious by parsing out the atrocity, the blood is diluted as it passes through many hands.
(Local folks protest the construction of the compressor station sited perilously close to the Fore River Bridge. A large methane transmission line runs directly below the bridge and could take it out if there was an explosion here. Photo: flaminggashole – Instagram)
The 6 years of local opposition has been fierce but thwarted at every turn by the onslaught of sheer/shear political power. Massive influxes of cash from Wall Street investors tends to overwhelm municipal governance and grassroots opposition. A recent in-depth Boston Globe Spotlight report by Mike Stanton could be pretty much summarized as this was a done deal. Despite the compressor station actually being built the opposition was incredibly successful at delaying the project for years, dragging out the process through an administration that first seemed to kick it into high gear with federal approval early in 2017.
This delay seems to have paid off when suddenly in early 2021 the compressor’s federal permitting body, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), indicated that they are willing to have a rehearing of the Weymouth issues. This came down on the last full day of The Trump Administration, probably the first official ray of hope in the 6 year battle. FRRACS on their website nocompressor.com has called for the public to comment to FERC and ask for a rehearing of the issues through the Commission’s online portal.
The Weymouth Compressor would be fully operational, as it was readied for an October 1, 2020 fire-up, if it were not for the two accident/emergency shut-downs it experienced in September. It’s possible that incompetence has been the only thing that could have of stopped it. One accident/emergency shut-down occurred on 9/11, a gasket failure. The other dramatically on the eve of what would have been its full commissioning of operations on September 30, the circumstances of which remains, as of this writing, uncertain. Both accidents/emergency shut-downs released massive volumes of combustible methane directly into The Fore River Basin. After the mysterious second accident/emergency shut-down Senator Ed Markey pressed heavily for the agreement for the compressor fire-up to be paused pending an investigation.
Things are getting curiouser as to the “root cause” of the mysterious second accident/emergency shut down. Apparently the much anticipated “root cause analysis” has been completed but shrouded in secretive intrigue, still unreleased, seemingly kept from view. What is for sure is the willingness to start compressor operations without public disclosure to this part of the investigation as evidenced in the approval from the Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PSMSA) allowing the compressor fire-up. What little that has been publicly pieced together, almost 4 months later, is that what triggered the mysterious second shut-down was “automatic” and did not emanate from conditions at the site. Contradictory information was abruptly tweeted and deleted by a reporter in what seemed to be a dubious document in the flurry to fire-up after PSMSA’s friday-surprise approval, just before a key certificate of operation expired. What has been documented is that the company that owns the compressor, and operates it remotely, used software that was compromised in the towering unresolved cyber-attack that is still reverberating through our techno-vulnerable world. This led one nearby resident to conclude “We’re sitting ducks.”
Only about a year ago, on the eve of construction, in the holiday season of December of 2019, one local resident grabbed an elf off the shelf and placed it on the gate of the site as an act of creative resistance. Ash the Elf became a rally point for opposition. The #elfonsite twitter account soon became the place to go to see that day’s construction activity often with playfully posed elves popping up in the daily post photos. The elf motif played well off the concept of watching and reporting back, as with Santa. The construction of a natural gas compressor station had likely never been under so much public scrutiny and observation, often credited to the elves. The #elfonsite twitter account documented the day’s destruction/construction including the inciting footage of toxic material billowing off the back of an overloaded truck in traffic coming from the site. This video post inspired a two-week hunger strike by Dr. Nathan Phillips, a professor at Boston University to call attention to this public health emergency.
When construction began in an early morning snowstorm on December 5, 2019 the opposition turned to public protest with a series of actions at the Weymouth site that resulted in many arrests of local people including mothers, clergy, and educators. These actions culminated with people breaking into the site during a protest and locking themselves down to construction equipment, halting the construction for the day in February of 2020.
(The opposition came out in force when compressor station construction began in December 2019)
The reality of Covid-19 hit immediately after and the in-person protest activity was curtailed. The #elfonstie twitter continued to document the rapid construction specifically exempted from Covid-19 shutdown by the Governor of Massachusetts. The construction was furious and seemed to rage with the pandemic with a multitude of out-of-state license plates showing up to the site, workers and delivery people traveling for this massive project.
No laws, regulations, pandemic declaration, appeals to human decency or common sense was going to stop this compressor from actualizing. The opposition had exhausted all of the avenues available in the limited and managed public input processes staged for the project. All of the required state approvals were eventually obtained with several of the decisions that allowed the construction still under appeal.
A December 2020 snowstorm had blanketed the park at King’s Cove giving the Elf Gathering seasonal sparkle. A picturesque frosting of the industrial chimney that vents the gaseous chemicals from the red brick-face compressor housing with its adjacent spiral pixie-stick stacks, enchanted the scene with a seussical Christmassy ambiance. The procession of festive objectors bearing their elves effigies made its way under the Fore River Bridge crossing the path of an underground gas transmission line, one of two large transmission lines that now connect to the Weymouth compressor. Many of the processioneers dressed with colorful holiday flair, some coming in spritely elf costumes sporting pointy ears and curled up shoes. Evergreen branches were waved in the air representing the environment as the spirited parade made its way into the coastal park.
(The Green Man spoke of short-sighted people who made the compressor a reality.)
The mysterious Green Man, a ceremonial figure garbed as if he could have emerged from the Tolkienverse, led the way. His facial features were fashioned from pine boughs and cones. The green man’s role was to charge the elves with their mission to stand ground and watch over the site. The socially-distance, outside event had received the go-ahead by local health officials for it complied with the state’s gathering protocols.
Stopping in front of the snowswept compressor facility the Green Man spoke of how its approval process reduced human life to mere numbers crunched to devalue the people in attendance. He referred to the elf placement as a “deabstracting the data, blowing life into cold dead statistics” that dehumanize life reducing it to risk factors to be managed. The Green Man also voiced hopeful notes, speaking of a turning in the year that saw several “natural” gas projects terminated with public, corporate and institutional support peeling away from fossil fuels. The Green Man referenced this day’s (December 20, 2020) rare cosmic event where two giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, came close together appearing to shine brightly as one, a signifier of solidarity in what he called the “solstice of humanity”.
Earth Minister Rev. Betsy J. Sowers of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, who was arrested at one of the year’s protest actions, addressed the participants standing before the imposing Goliath of an industrial facility. Rev. Betsy spoke frankly of the connection of the holiday season’s promise of renewal with the stories of human struggle told in faith traditions at this time of winter solstice. “It not just that new things are coming and that warm and fuzzy things are coming, it’s that justice is coming and that turning empires upside down is coming.”
(One of the 8 active industrial polluters on the Fore River. Still from And It Smells Like Rotten Eggs)
The concept of environmental justice recognizes that some communities, like poor and minority ones, bear the brunt of societies’ pollution. This idea should have played a role in the permitting decision to add an additional industrial polluter, like the compressor station, to The Fore River Basin’s already toxic mix of 8 active industrial polluters. It did not. In issuing the project’s needed Air Quality Permit, at the state level, the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection was able to ignore the “background” pollution and thus the people who inhale it.
Environmental Justice Zones are lawfully designated residential areas often overburdened by unhealthful concentrations of environmental contaminates. However, Massachusetts Environmental Justice law has no teeth and was easily dispatched with by the state’s environmental permitting agency Mass. DEP. This methane emitting compressor was able to recieved its Air Quality Permit from the State of Massachusetts, the last major regulatory huddle that allowed compressor station construction. This, despite it being sited near two Environmental Justice Zones, compromised EJ Communities, Quincy Point and The Germantown neighborhood.
(Weymouth gas compressor infrastructure just across water from public housing in Germantown, Quincy MA. Photo: Elf)
Quincy’s Germantown has an unobstructed view of the new compressor station site, a stone’s throw, straight shot just across the bay, home to a large concentration of people. This sprawling neighborhood is densely populated with working-class people, immigrants, the elderly, people living with disabilities including veterans, people of color and people who live in a huge development of multi-family public housing and a three wing, 8 story tower for seniors living wide open to the site.
The compressor will constantly release toxic chemicals running 24/7, sometimes blasting them out in tall pressurized plumes known as blowdowns. Blowdowns can last for hours and be of an emergency nature or an intentional venting of the chemicals known to cause cancer. Compressors are loud! It will be like living with an ever-grinding, screeching jet engine, and it smells like rotten eggs. The area’s toxic situation led one doctor to compare what is happening on the Fore River to the lead water scandal in Flint, MN.
The Fore River Basin is scarred with a toxic legacy of industrial production. Industry that built ships, won world wars and powered the post-war industrial boon. The small peninsula on which the compressor and the Park at King’s Cove sits, The North Parcel, was a 20th century dumping ground and still very much is a waste site with an alarming mass of exposed toxic waste that covers its beach and lies buried beneath the site.
(Coal ash clinkers and burner bricks lay the beach only yards from the Weymouth Compressor. Still from And It Smells Like Rotten Eggs)
The eroding coal ash coast of King’s Cove is a surreal shorescape made up of what looks to be black volcanic rock but is actually solid toxic coal ash waste. The molten coal ash clinkers, as they are called, are bubbled with reds and purples and can be small as pebbles or big as watermelons. It is what remains from the burning down of massive piles of coal once stored on the North Parcel. These man-made clinkers are so mind-blowingly abundant, dumped here from the 50 years of coal-fired energy production, that they actually filled in the bay to form the acres of ground over which the compressor and the park now sits. The shore is also littered with bricks, jaundiced, spent kiln bricks many of which assuredly composed of Asbestos that have sat in the salty tidelands and under the North Parcel for many decades. As the coast erodes you can plainly see on an encrusted buff a cross section of the depths of the North Parcel. A hellish strata of black-reddish ash suspends pale gold bricks like a corroded pudding. A dune of industrial waste crumbles and falls into the sea. 15,000 tons of toxic material was haphazardly excavated, dug-up and redumped for this project.
(The nug, a toxic watermelon-sized coal ash clinker on the coast of The North Parcel. Still from And It Smells Like Rotten Eggs/Enviromental Crime Scene)
The poisonous legacy of industry here has left the residents of the Fore River with elevated levels of disease and tragically, a history of early death. One long-time North Weymouth resident vividly recalls the air-born pollution that used to belch from the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, Edgar Station (1923-1970). This industrial gothic power station’s complex included the North Parcel. She related the dilemma of being a young woman unable to hang the laundry to dry outside of her home because it would be stained by coal soot that fell like black snowflakes over her neighborhood. Presently, on any day the sky over the Fore River will be plumed by industrial waste. The idea of adding to this historically ravaged and very much presently polluted environment is unconscionable.
Ire at Elf Gathering flowed and focused, as compressor ire inevitably does, on Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Baker who through his state regulatory agencies, is the one that the opposition holds to be responsible for the allowing this compressor. Baker claims powerlessness, citing that this decision is made at the federal level. This, despite the fact that the compressor’s builders acquired the needed approvals from his political appointees under his authority at his state agencies who had the power not to sign-off on it and kill the project. Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, found a way to kill a toxic facility proposed for the Fore River with the denial of a permit from his Mass. DEP years ago. This permit was rejected because of the surrounding population density and the health and safety risk it posed. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was able to kill a massive natural gas project in his state recently. Real governors stand up industry and Big Meth.
(The opposition’s Governor effigy is taken the stand-outs around the South Shore. The arms are rendered thrown-up in the air like there is nothing he can do, the rope a reference to the comment that his hands were tied in the compressor station affair. Photo: Elf)
The opposition points out that Baker is personally invested in fossil fuels, including fracked gas, like the product that is set to flow through the Weymouth compressor. There seems to be a cozy relationship between Baker and the lobbying firm who represented the energy company that proposed the Weymouth Compressor as reported by Itai Vardi in DeSmog Blog. Baker’s mentor, ex-boss and pal, 90’s era former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, the 2016 Libertarian Vice-presidential candidate, is a lobbyist for the firm. Weld even made a cameo in one of Baker’s campaign ads.
Baker has somehow got successfully branded as a “climate champion”. He even touted his Massachusetts climate response as a model in front of congress on the national stage. Despite this climate cred he recently vetoed a comprehensive bill to combat climate change with an environmental justice component in favor of the real estate development industry. The bill, the Next Generation Roadmap was long hammered-out and passed by the legislature that could really have been a visionary national model.
Scandalously Charlie Baker has never done a risk assessment for the Weymouth compressor that would have put on record the long list many terrible reasons why this should never have been permitted by the state. Perhaps because for this cold datacrat the numbers, information and models that would have been generated by such an assessment would have necessitated that he take some action to stop this compressor. He would have at least had to speak out against it to retain plausible respectably.
Baker’s inaction around the compressor seems like a tragic flaw-sized problem with him. He avoids and seems rather touchy and somewhat flummoxed when asked about the compressor. One local mother, a Weymouth resident waited outside his office to speak with him, on her lunch break, for 211 days. As told in her blog, Baker finally granted her a brief exchange after she hopped on the elevator with him. Baker took the opportunity to claim victimhood citing her “so brutal” tweets before getting off and stating he had nothing to say to her.
(A lore is forming around these twin elves with an ongoing story, Kilnbrick and Klinker: Elves from the Parcel of North, on wordpress/elvesonsite that mythologizes the the Fore River. The ecotone elves call for the Elf Gathering when their home is destroyed for the dreaded Compressorator. Photo: Elf)
This is not going away for him. At Christmas time, shortly after construction began, compressor opponents showed up to protest his photo-op involving Baker briefly ringing the bell for a Salvation Army donation pot in Downtown Crossing. The optics were not good. He ignored the chants of the protestors only a few feet away, behind a line of police, ringing. Opponents shouted “shame” alternated with the chemical names of toxins to be released into their community, then called out the disease they cause. One activist has called him “notoriously sneaky” in avoiding public interaction.
His avoidance of the issues around the compressor could be deadly since Baker’s administration has failed to come up with a vital comprehensive regional emergency plan for the South Shore if this thing explodes with a mass casualty event. This leads one to believe he must be fine with the compressor station set to fire-up without one. It is heart breaking to see local folks, parents, concerned citizens, the school committee try and figure out just what to do in case the worst happens.
The opposition has claimed a case could be made against Baker for violating the oath, to protect the citizens of the commonwealth, “to hold the people from harm” to which he swore. Baker is taking a major risk for any future political ambitions if he’s wagering the compressor not having more incidents/accidents. A recent glossy cover-story in the real estate lifestyle mag Boston Magazine, hyping his pandemic response, floated the idea of him a US Senator. Does he really think that the blame for a major compressor station accident with fatalities would not stick to him, lead to increased scrutiny of his role, or non-role in the aftermath of tragedy? Life and health is tenuous in the Basin. And if the situation gets bad enough, he may find himself in a legal snafu like former Michigan Governor Gary Snider who faces two counts of willful neglect of duty relating to the ongoing Flint water crisis.
(Local residents stand on the bridge protesting in the incineration zone. Photo: flaminggashole – Instagram)
Baker won’t be able to claim he didn’t have any idea of how bad a “natural” gas accident could be since the 30+ simultaneous gas fires/explosions in the Merrimack Valley Gas Disaster happened during his administration. Weak management, poor oversight and one human error in the routine maintenance of gas infrastructure left homes destroyed, a young man dead and many people and businesses without their gas heat and hot water for long stretches.
Baker once reportedly seemed to justify the siting of the compressor in The Fore River Basin with a snide remark that the area was not exactly virgin territory. Local residents took great offence at what they saw as a dirty crack that characterized where they live as no big deal to screw again. Perhaps Baker was naïve to the demeaning imperialist connotations of the phrase virgin territory. But what the remark does betray is a condescending attitude toward land use that stands in opposition to the idea of environmental justice.
This kind of classist attitude was echoed officially in the state’s botched Health Impact Assessment that was vital compressor’s state approval. The HIA was a rushed, underfunded health study of the Fore River area that concluded there would be no health effects from the compressor. The assessment was down-scoped from the start, overseen by two of Baker’s state agencies, that appeared to blame local residents for their poor health outcomes. The study seemed to imply that if the area people really wanted to be healthy, they would stop smoking and modify their sedentary lifestyles.
Despite the looming threat of tragedy from the mechanical beast that backdropped the lively proceedings, the Elf Gathering channeled the unique joy that comes from common struggle. The event conjured the genuine essence of the great Christmas stories like Scrooge, the Grinch and It’s A Wonderful Life, the human spirit enduring over greed. After an exuberant blessing from local Pastor Rev. Gretchen people placed their elf effigies on the parcel in the trees and bushes as the sun was starting to set. The station’s floodlights illuminated the park with its stoic evergreens now hosting bevies of elves. The tide was going out as people trailed off down the snow packed path, back to the social distance necessitated, in wait of better days.
(A plywood elfin princess stands at a picnic table next to the compressor, an artistic response to a deadly real situation. Photo: flaminggashole – Instagram)
Since the Elf Gathering in December elves have continued to arrive and populate the park at King’s Cove now numbering over 400. The display is maintained by local residents who will continue to help elves immigrate there to stand ground until the compressor is stopped. The opposition is as resolute at ever that they will “keep on fighting ‘til the end”.
There are many resources to learn and keep updated with the ongoing story of the Weymouth compressor.
The Instagram account @flaminggashole is an artistic take with brief commentary that regularly posts. It is the official Instagram for the forthcoming film And It Smells Like Rotten Eggs, a cinematic essay that chronicles the Weymouth compressor’s twisting story of force and resistance. Several sequences have been released.
Desk Killers Part 1 and 2.
This sequence features the coal-ash coast of King’s Cove, Enviromental Crime Scene.
The comprehensive place for compressor station information and updates is the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station (FRRACS) website nocompressor.com. FRRACS also maintains an active facebook and twitter account for current info and breaking news.
There are several videos of the resistance actions on Vimeo including:
Snow Action! Part 1
Compressor Station Action Part 2
The Wind Resistance Part 1
FRACCS produced a short film that explores the toxic legacy of The Fore River Basin, Telling Our Stories.
The elfin twitter account that documents the activity at Weymouth compressor station site is #elfonsite