Trust Targets Gas Leaks That Kill Trees

Monday, March 26, 2007

By JAY LINDSAY, Associated Press Writer



Minor natural gas leaks that are no threat to people can still cause harm: They can kill public shade trees by choking off the oxygen at their roots.

Bob Ackley, who has spent 25 years testing natural gas lines for leaks, says it's happening to thousands of trees around the state, and gas companies are slow to fix it.

So Ackley and attorney Jan Schlichtmann, famous for fighting for eight families in a groundwater contamination case portrayed in the John Travolta movie "A Civil Action," set up the Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust to help communities stop the leaks and recover their costs.

"We can't be losing these trees," Ackley said. "Every tree that we lose that's 60, 70, 80 years old, it's going to take 60, 70 years to replace."

The new trust will be open at no cost to any of the state's 260 communities with natural gas lines. Once a community joins, the trust will catalog any trees damaged by natural gas leaks, then try to negotiate damage payments with gas companies. Earlier this month, Marshfield became the first community to join.

Gas company representatives dispute that leaks are widespread, saying federal regulations require them to annually detect and repair leaks. They also say tree-killing leaks are not generally known as a big problem.

Don DiNunno, of Bay State Gas, which has about 300,000 customers in the state, said the company already reimburses any damage to vegetation caused by gas leaks.

"I just feel confident that our system is well maintained and we respond accordingly if there are situations that require us to respond to a leak," DiNunno said.

Public shade trees can be worth near $100,000 each, and Ackley estimates tens of millions of dollars in tree damage from leaks around Massachusetts.

Natural gas contaminates the soil with methane, causing methane-consuming bacteria to multiply and suck up the oxygen in the soil. That interrupts the crucial exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the soil and air, and carbon dioxide, methane and other components in natural gas build up and contaminate the tree's roots. The roots die and the tree follows, said Carl Cathcart, a certified arborist hired by the trust.

The problem of gas leaks damaging public trees isn't new. Schlichtmann cites a 1922 case in which the city of Salem successfully sued the Salem Gas Light Co. after leaking gas destroyed city shade trees.

But Schlichtmann said gas companies have recently neglected repairs for low level leaks which aren't considered safety risks, and communities are losing ancient trees that provide beauty and character.

"The companies are ignoring these leaks, ignoring the destruction to these urban forests, and it's the communities that are left in ignorance to pick up the damages," he said.

Carmen Fields, a spokeswoman for KeySpan, which has about 900,000 gas customers, most in eastern Massachusetts, said while non-hazardous leaks are sometimes not immediately repaired, Keyspan "goes to great lengths" to maintain the system's safety and reliability.

"Trees die, I'm not disputing that. Whether gas is always the cause, that remains to be determined," Field said. "We would take any claim seriously and make every effort to make a fair determination and reimbursement, if appropriate."

Ackley estimated the number of low level leaks statewide at more than 15,000, and said they often occur because the cast iron gas pipes used in the older systems were made for a wetter product than natural gas, so the pipe joints have dried out and become leaky.

Ackley, who also runs a company that tests for gas leaks in homes, said it's easy to spot trees that could be suffering from gas leaks: they dry out from the extremities and offer little shade, even in summer.

Schlichtmann and Ackley are now trying to build the trust's membership, and Ackley said he has up to 10 workers ready to investigate possible gas damage, which Cathcart would then have to verify. The trees' values will be determined using a standard system that considers factors such as size, age, species and location.

The scope of the problem will be obvious to gas companies once the trust investigates and lays it out, Ackley said.

"I think, by and large, the gas companies are going to be behind this because it's going to be the right thing to do," he said.

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