The town's David Morgan tests for leaks./ courtesy David MorganTown official David Morgan tests for leaks June 8. Judith Boroschek photo

UPDATED: How many natural-gas leaks have been repaired over the past several weeks locally depends on whom you believe: town officials or the utility -- National Grid -- that supplies natural gas throughout Arlington.

Natural gas is mostly methane. A United Nations document says that methane has a global warming potential 80 times that of carbon dioxide.

Greenhouse gases including methane, carbon dioxide and others are a growing concern locally, statewide, nationally and internationally

Gas leaks can be hazardous if inhaled and are generally considered to be a threat to health, climate and public safety. Accidents involving natural gas can sometimes even cause explosions, such as the one that rocked the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018, due to a cut in a gas line, killing one person and causing an estimated $1 billion in property damage.

That case did not involve National Grid, as that area of the state has a different natural-gas provider. An explosion the next year in Kentucky due to a mistake with pressure killed at least one person and also caused a dramatic conflagration. 

Town calls 14 leaks of most concern

Of the 181 gas leaks currently posing a potential threat in Arlington, 14 are considered the most risky to people and the environment; they are classified as large-volume or of Significant Environmental Impact gas leaks, or SEI leaks.

This situation prompted the Select Board on March 13 to issue a resolution calling on National Grid to repair the SEI leaks by July 2023.

“National Grid responded to the resolution saying that two of the leaks were repaired, six were scheduled for repair by 2024 and the remaining six did not yet have repair dates,” said town Environmental Planner David Morgan.

Using Google, Morgan created this map about three months ago to show all known gas leaks in town; it’s also viewable on the town website and also in a small temporary display on the left side of the lobby at Robbins Library.

“We want all the leaks listed in the resolution fixed because they are large leaks. They are all in the classification of Significant Environmental Impact leaks.”   -- Gas Leaks Task Force Chair Ann Boland 

Ann Boland, chair of Arlington’s Gas Leaks Task Force, said, “We want all the leaks listed in the resolution fixed because they are large leaks. They are all in the classification of SEI leaks. Some are larger than others, but to get the SEI designation, the area of the leak has to measure over 2,000 square feet. One study determined that these large leaks comprise about 7 percent of all of the gas leaks but account for 50 percent of the methane that is leaked into the atmosphere.”  

National Grid's different view

However, YourArlington in late June received a statement from Christine Milligan, a member of National Grid’s Media Communications team, that said otherwise.

“National Grid takes seriously our responsibility to our customers to safely maintain our gas network, and our responsibility to our region to help mitigate climate change. All of the 14 large-volume leaks that the Arlington Select Board called upon National Grid to repair by July 2023 have been eliminated.”

On June 8, Morgan, Boland, several of her task force members plus some three dozen local residents took a two-hour bus tour to bring awareness to the problem and to view trouble spots.

“Arlington’s Gas Leaks Task Force tested six sites that National Grid claimed were recently repaired and found that four were still leaking. Three of the leaks the Task Force tested were large- volume leaks, and one was a Grade 2,” Morgan said a few weeks later.

Gas-leak tour in June involved testingGas-leaks tourists traveled by bus on June 8, 2023. / Judith Boroschek photo

On the tour, Morgan used a gas-leak detector that the town had previously purchased because many trees were dying from gas leaks. The town’s Tree Division routinely uses the detector before planting new street trees, and if a gas leak is detected in a particular spot, won’t plant them there, Morgan said.

“We've had to pursue damages from National Grid owing to the number of trees we have lost this way. The equipment is owned and maintained by DPW [Department of Public Works] and they allow the task force to use it for testing and detecting leaks,” Morgan stated to YourArlington in early July.

In early July in response to a YourArlington query, Morgan specified 15 Russell St., 44 Jason St. and10 Joyce Road as spots where leaking persists. He added, “We separately tested 106 Rhinecliff St. and found it, too, was still leaking.” The Grade 2 leak -- one considered not to be of immediate risk to life or property but that potentially could become hazardous -- was discovered on Pine Street in May.

Two more replies from National Grid

Milligan of National Grid addressed this development in her statement. “It’s important to note that gas-leak repair in one location does not eliminate the risk of new gas leaks in another. It is likely that gas readings found near the repaired leaks are from new or other sources. We remind anyone who suspects a gas leak to call National Grid at 1-800-233-5325 to alert us of the issue so that it can be investigated.” 

“It’s important to note that gas-leak repair in one location does not eliminate the risk of new gas leaks in another. It is likely that gas readings found near the repaired leaks are from new or other sources.”    -- National Grid spokeswoman Christine Milligan

She continued, “Replacing gas mains with new plastic or coated steel pipe is the best long-term approach to reducing leaks on the gas system and enhancing overall safe operations.”

When YourArlington asked Boland whether the situation might be about National Grid wanting to replace the pipes instead of repairing them, she said, “I really have no idea why they don’t fix these leaks. They don’t really tell us what they are doing or why they do things. They hold all of the power. Is it about money? We do know that they make a lot more money replacing the main lines because replacement is a capital expense as opposed to making repairs and general maintenance, which are reimbursed at a lower cost.”

Boland referred to this document, which describes the natural-gas delivery system statewide. She continued, “I think we are in this position of old leaky pipes because they have neglected basic maintenance of the entire distribution system.”

Morgan told YourArlington that the task force has not heard from National Grid since it initially responded to the Select Board’s resolution.

Milligan’s response to that: “Typically, we would complete the work as requested, and we would certainly respond to requests for information if we receive them. To my knowledge, we have not received such requests.”

Interim goal: keeping Arlington awareA gas-leaks display will be in the lobby at Robbins Library for just a few more days. / Tony Moschetto photo

  Morgan and Boland remain resolute in keeping public attention on the issue.

“The Town of Arlington will continue to raise public awareness about National Grid’s leaked methane. The town works regionally to triage this issue and to transition to clean, renewable energy,” said Morgan.

Boland added, “Residents can continue to let National Grid know when they smell gas and even organize their neighbors to all call and complain. We also encourage residents to contact their state reps. Dave Rogers and Sean Garballey, and our state senator- Cindy Friedman. We encourage them to ask representatives to support H.3137.”

H.3137 is state legislation allowing municipalities to intervene with the state Department of Public Utilities, or DPU, which has authority over National Grid. The town itself cannot make National Grid take action, but being included in DPU proceedings would give municipalities much more leverage, Boland and Morgan believe.

Boland pointed to one of the task forces’ accomplishments, “Our group helped start the Multi-Town Gas Leaks Task Force, bringing together 40-plus municipalities in [National] Grid territory because we all have the same gas leak problem, i.e., this is a much bigger problem than just one town.”

A 70-minute Multi-Town Gas Leaks Task Force meeting video is here >>

Morgan noted, “We’ll definitely keep the public involved. Right now, there’s a display at the Robbins Library where they can learn more. It’ll be up for another couple of weeks. We don’t have any [more] events scheduled yet, but [residents] can always visit for more info.”

The energy-environmental backdrop

Concerns about natural gas ultimately form part of a much bigger energy-environmental picture.

The town more than a year ago endorsed Electrify Arlington, a campaign aimed at curtailing Arlington’s greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to power buildings with clean electricity to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Arlington’s 2021 plan, endorsed by the Select Board, commits the town to this goal.

Motor-vehicle fuel use is not the only target.

The town, along with several other area municipalities, is part of a statewide plan to reduce or eliminate all fossil-fuel use and greenhouse gases. Many environmental advocates call for reducing or even banning natural-gas use in the next few decades, especially by forbidding natural-gas hookups in new construction in most cases. 

March 21, 2023: Resolution gives National Grid deadline to repair town's gas leaks

This news feature by YourArlington freelance writer Tony Moschetto was published Friday, July 7, 2023.It was updated the same day to name the photographer who took pictures on the June 8, 2023, gas-leaks tour, and to briefly state the causes of explosions that occurred in 2018 and 2019.