‘Do your job, DEP’: A B.U. professor is on a hunger strike to get officials to take action at the Weymouth compressor station site

"There's a necessity now for people to literally put their bodies on the line to call out the injustice that's playing out in the Fore River basin right now."

Nathan Phillips
Nathan Phillips –Nathan Phillips via Twitter

Nathan Phillips is feeling well, physically speaking.

For six days, he’s subsisted on essentially a zero-calorie regimen, avoiding sugar and glucose, and instead has opted for a daily multivitamin and a steady stream of water and unsweetened tea.

Sometimes he adds sea salt to his cup of green tea, creating a broth-like flavor to keep himself going.

On Monday morning, the Boston University earth and environment professor was approximately 118 hours into the hunger strike he says is needed for state officials to act on vehicle decontamination, asbestos testing, air quality monitoring at the Weymouth compressor station site.

Activists and project opponents like Phillips have long expressed their outrage and concerns over Enbridge’s natural gas facility adjacent to the Fore River Bridge, now under construction after securing final approvals last year.

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Phillips has been actively engaged in opposition to the project — including with the local community group, Fore River Residents Against Compressor Station, or FRRACS — and was arrested, among others, for civil disobedience at the site in October, he said.

In fact, the strike is something Phillips has considered ever since final permits were signed off last fall.

“In a nutshell, every legal and regulatory remedy and appeal and process has run its course,” he told Boston.com. “So we’re at a stage now where the injustice is still there — that’s never been remedied — but there’s a necessity now for people to literally put their bodies on the line to call out the injustice that’s playing out in the Fore River basin right now.”

‘Do your job, DEP’

The compressor station is one piece in Enbridge’s “Atlantic Bridge Project”: a national gas pipeline running through New England and into Canada. The company says the infrastructure is needed to provide additional capacity on the existing Algonquin Gas Transmission and Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline systems.

FRRACS and other opponents — including a long list of local and state officials — have voiced a litany of issues about the project, ranging from the state’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels to health impacts and safety concerns raised by incidents at other compressor facilities.

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Last year, Gov. Charlie Baker said, however, the state “basically had no choice” but to grant the approval for construction to move forward, citing that the issue falls under federal jurisdiction — a notion Phillips and others have contested.

“The telling thing to me is that even if it were true that he had no power, which he claims, … he has never even voiced an opinion on whether he thinks it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” Phillips said.

Now, Phillips is looking to Baker and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Martin Suuberg to see to it that officials follow through on enforcing health safety measures and conducting tests at the site.

He says the strike will cease if the state meets three conditions:

  1. That all dump trucks exiting the work site abide by procedures outlined in the “Release Abatement Measures Plan”, or RAM, finalized in November, “which require a decontamination pad/station, and other measures to clean tires and exterior vehicle surfaces of site residue.” Activists allege crews have so far failed to do so. Enbridge said it follows the plan.
  2. That DEP completes “comprehensive testing” for asbestos in the furnace bricks and the coal ash that make up the man-made fill around the site. Phillips laments previous testing only just scratched the surface.
  3. That the Baker administration commits to a date within the next, approximately, week and a half for when an air quality monitor will be installed and commence operations near the property.

“Basically you can summarize my complaints as, ‘Do your job, DEP. It’s in your name — protect the environment.’ That’s all we’re asking. Do your job,” said Phillips, who launched his strike last Wednesday. “Isn’t it amazing that someone literally has to go on a hunger strike to get the DEP to just do its job? It’s really quite astounding.”

‘They can mobilize quickly’

After requesting a meeting with DEP last week, FRRAC members are slated to do just that this Friday, where they plan to discuss issues surround the RAM plan enforcement and asbestos testing, the group says.

In response to an email sent by Phillips last Thursday, Suuberg wrote that the Baker administration remains committed to installing a long-term air quality monitoring station, according to the letter shared by Phillips on Twitter.

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“MassDEP continues to work closely with (the) EPA to ensure that this monitoring station will meet all EPA siting criteria, and MassDEP is planning inclusion of the site into its state-wide ambient air monitoring network through its annual Network Plan submitted to EPA,” Suuberg wrote, adding that DEP will work with the City of Weymouth to finalize a site.

In the meantime, DEP will install a temporary station at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority pump station in Weymouth “as expeditiously as possible,” which the department says will “commence gathering data in mid-February and report on a regular basis as results are reported back to our agency after analysis.”

“The department looks forward to beginning data collection and installing a permanent facility in the community,” the email says.

Phillips, who despite lacking confidence in state officials over the project, said he expects they will meet the demands he has set this Friday because they are “reasonable expectations.”

Officials must treat this as a public health emergency because it is one, Phillips said.

“They can mobilize quickly to do this,” he said. “Sampling asbestos bricks, it’s not rocket science. It takes a word from the governor, just like when he announced the vaping ban.”

If not, the strike will continue, Phillips said.

“They own the hunger strike as much as I do,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m not responsible for my own decisions, but they’re going to be with me the rest of the way, … Gov. Baker and Martin Suuberg.”

Reached for comment regarding the hunger strike by Boston.com Monday, the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees MassDEP, reiterated the statements made in Suuberg’s email last week.

Max Bergeron, an Enbridge spokesman, said the company is proceeding with construction at the site “with public health and safety as our priority” and in compliance with the RAM plan.

“We are following the proper procedures for trucks removing soil from the Weymouth Compressor Station site, consistent with the RAM Plan,” Bergeron said in a statement. “Trucks are inspected before leaving the site to ensure that regulated soils are not tracked off-property. The paved road leading to the Compressor Station site is swept on a regular basis as an added measure to ensure no tracking of regulated soil onto local roadways.”

‘It’s indefinite’

Phillips has continued going about his life as he normally would during the hunger strike, save for refraining from strenuous activities, he says.

He plans to keep working to bring the strike through Friday’s meeting, but, he notes, there’s no end date in sight.

“It’s open to me … it’s indefinite,” he said.

He’s also received overwhelming support that sustains him and keeps him going, he said.

“We’re going to win on these three demands and that’s just the start … We’re going to go until we shut down the compressor station, and I want the governor and Martin Suuberg to know that we’re also going to hold to account the people who have perpetrated this injustice on the Fore River basin,” he said.

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