My hunger strike yields some progress

But Weymouth Compressor will still do damage

LAST WEDNESDAY, I concluded a two-week-long hunger strike to spotlight public safety violations at the construction site of the Weymouth Compressor, a new fossil fuel facility planned for Boston’s South Shore. Friends and journalists have asked: was it worth it? Did we get what we wanted?

Yes, and no.

Friends of friends, who’d never even heard of the Weymouth Compressor before, are asking, incredulously, how and why three eminently reasonable public safety demands of the strike needed to be anything more than baseline expectations, no less requiring of a hunger strike.

The three demands – to properly decontaminate dump trucks leaving the site; to test the site thoroughly for asbestos; and to install an air quality monitor – can be summarized in three words to the Department of Environmental Protection: Do Your Job. I feel good that a spotlight of scrutiny is now shining bright, and intensifying.

And there is evidence that the agency is aware of its exposure and realizes the urgency of the situation. We have observed agency staff site visits several times last week, after meeting with the Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station and nine days after I launched my hunger strike. Presumably, these visits are to check on truck decontamination and asbestos testing procedures, although I’m only guessing.

Nathan G. Phillips

The Department of Environmental Protection also scrambled to make progress on the air monitor that its staff has been discussing since October 2018. There’s a sense of urgency after Weymouth resident  Margaret Bellafiore got an on-the-air pledge from Gov. Charlie Baker on the January 23 Boston Public Radio show committing to action. The “air monitor” is temporary and measuring but one of an essential suite of air quality indicators, but it’s better than what the community has had in its five-year battle for clean air, which is pretty much nothing.

Yes, the pressure generated by myself and others has clearly produced a sense of urgency by state officials, and the hunger strike was well worth it for that reason. Yet it is not clear that that sense of urgency is translating into useful action, and there are disturbing signs that the Baker administration is retreating from this public health crisis into a cloak of denial and obfuscation.

  • Site visits appear to be not much more than photo opportunities, with Department of Environmental Protection staff mostly walking around and talking amongst themselves. It’s unclear what, if any inspection, is happening on these site visits.
  • According to Weymouth resident Wendy Cullivan, Baker’s office asserted in a phone exchange that the hunger strike demands had been met, and that a statement from the secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs was forthcoming. We have seen no such statement.
  • The Department of Environmental Protection emailed legislators on February 10, doubling down on denial about suspected asbestos in burner bricks (discarded bricks that lined the inside of smokestacks and boiler rooms in nearby old coal- and oil-fired power plants). The agency contends that eight burner bricks tested within the top one-foot of the site material is representative of bricks distributed throughout the 28-foot vertical profile of the coal ash landfill that forms the foundation of the compressor site. Yet tens of thousands of bricks were dumped into this site over many decades; the deeper the position, the older the bricks. Prior to 1972, burner bricks were made with asbestos. The Department of Environmental Protection has not acknowledged this.

My hunger strike was precipitated in part by Baker’s Jan. 23 pledge, broken within a couple of days, that he would respond to Bellafirore’s call for the long-sought air monitor “within a couple of days.” Bellafiore made a Boston Public Radio show follow-up call three weeks later, on February 12, to ask when we could expect comprehensive site testing for asbestos. Baker responded by changing the subject, then claiming not to know “what the back and forth was between you folks and the DEP” regarding asbestos testing in bricks. Finally, Baker conceded, with regard to asbestos testing, “if it’s something we can get done in a reasonably short period of time, we will do it.”

Now, for once, Baker has invoked urgency, but in a deeply disturbing way. It seems that his urgency is to be finished with consideration of the grave injustice he has presided over in the Fore River Basin, an environmental justice community already overburdened by cancer risk and respiratory disease from existing industrial polluters.

Meet the Author

Nathan G. Phillips

Professor of earth and environment, Boston University
His urgency seems to revolve around the interests of Enbridge, whose legal and lobbyist representatives and corporate partners have donated over $100,000 to his campaign. His urgency seems to revolve around not wanting to be reminded that the project his agencies have rubber-stamped will enable the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent to one million motor vehicles annually, wiping out any carbon emissions reductions made from his signature Transportation Climate Initiative for years to come.

Governor Baker, the 3,100 children in harm’s way from this compressor project, and children across the Commonwealth, are urgently awaiting your action, for a different reason. It’s for their health, safety, and future. They can’t afford to hold their breath.

Nathan G. Phillips is a professor in the department of earth and environment at Boston University.