It’s been said that in the Trump Era, the future of environmental activism is local. Right now, that claim is being borne out in Weymouth, where a proposed energy project has sparked a backlash — and created some unlikely allies.
At first glance, there’s nothing special about the North Weymouth parcel where Enbridge, a Canadian energy-infrastructure company, hopes to build a new gas-compressor station. It’s a small, grassy patch at the foot of the Fore River Bridge, a stone’s throw from Quincy, dotted with scrubby trees and tucked into a heavily industrial area.
But this unremarkable piece of real estate is the focus of what might be the biggest environmental battle in greater Boston.
“This is a terrorist’s dream,” said Alice Arena, who leads the group Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station, or FRRACS. (She's also a Democratic State Committee member.) “Because there’s no way to protect this building, on a public park, with two water accesses to it.”
The building in question would help Enbridge regulate gas pressure as it expands its network into New England and eastern Canada, an expansion that includes two separate but complimentary projects.
According to Arena, the risks aren’t limited to the aforementioned worst-case scenario.
“It is going to be constantly pouring methane, and upwards of 38 volatile organic compounds, out of the exhausts,” she said of the station. “You [could] have anything from sore throats to cancer.”
For the record, Arena also calls herself a “pipeline warrior,” and says that if we keep using fracked gas, humanity is doomed.
But in Weymouth, it’s not just Enbridge versus environmentalists — it’s Enbridge versus environmentalists and Mayor Bob Hedlund, the former Republican state senator who backed Donald Trump last fall.
“There’s no other compressor station we can find in New England, and maybe the country, that’s situated in a neighborhood with these kinds of characteristics in terms of density, proximity to homes, and also … what the neighborhood’s been asked to endure in the past,” Hedlund said.
Hedlund describes North Weymouth as a blue-collar neighborhood that’s already heavily industrial and would be hard-pressed to accommodate additional noise and pollution.
At one point, Hedlund notes, he suggested Enbridge build somewhere else in town.
“We looked for another site we could offer that wasn’t in such a densely populated neighborhood … and included some town-owned land, by the way,” he said. “And there was no interest [from Enbridge] in sitting down to discuss that.”
So now, Hedlund is mounting what he calls a “Churchillian” resistance to the project — which recently got preliminary approval from federal regulators, contingent on future OKs from the state’s Departments of Environmental Protection and Coastal Zone Management.
“We’ll fight on every beachhead,” Hedlund said. “If you look at the list of actions we’ve taken, from [acting as an] intervener to filing lawsuits … it’s endless.”
Just because Hedlund and Arena are on the same side doesn’t mean they’re unified. One major point of contention: Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to remain above the fray over the proposed facility.
“In the end,” Baker said on Boston Public Radio in February, “if the federal government believes that certain energy-capacity decisions with respect to transmission are in the national interest, it’s their call.”
Hedlund says that’s generally correct — though he also says he’s hoping state regulators carefully weigh the project before allowing it to proceed.
In contrast, Arena argues that if the governor decided to oppose the project, the state regulators who still need to weigh in would be inclined to follow his lead.
She wishes Baker would do exactly that.
“If he were to come out and say that, he gives political cover to his departments,” she said.
Instead, Arena says, Baker has effectively done the opposite, by stating Massachusetts needs to expand its gas infrastructure.
In a statement, Enbridge told WGBH News that the proposed gas-compressor station was vetted by federal regulators for nearly two months, that the facility will be safe and that consumers will get cheaper, more reliable energy when it’s constructed.
The statement also said Enbridge is “committed to respectful, ongoing engagement with all key stakeholders and interested parties,” and will “continue engaging in discussions … answering questions, and responding to issues that may arise throughout construction.”
April 16, 2016: This story has been updated to include Alice Arena's affiliation with the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee.