Those of you who live in villages without a Neighborhood Area Council may not know what some of the things are that Area Councils (whose members are elected by the neighborhood’s voters) do. Here’s a prime example of how we spend our time when we could otherwise be binging on Netflix:

Newton is fortunate to have a first-rate medical facility within its borders. Newton-Wellesley Hospital, the large healthcare institution housed at the juncture of three of Newton’s villages, (let’s call it “Lower Waburndale”), is prized by all who need and use its community based medical care.

In December, as a member of the Waban Area Council, I attended our monthly meeting to hear about Newton-Wellesley’s plans to convert its present gas-fired hot water and steam heating boiler system into a co-generation power system supplying the hospital not only with its heat and hot water, but also with the ability to generate up to 95% of its own electric power under peak use. According to John Looney, N-W Hospital’s Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs, and Justin Ferbert, NWH Director of Facilities, Engineering and Maintenance, during the last two summers electric power shortages or outages have plagued the hospital and thrown the back-up diesel generators (which do not burn cleanly) into approximately 40 days of use. To ensure resiliency and to reduce electricity costs to the hospital, a savings estimated to be $1,000,000 annually, Newton Wellesley is planning to add two gas-fired turbine engines with a large switch to produce the electric power that the hospital needs on a 24-7 basis, allowing them to generate about 75% of the hospital’s annual electricity needs. Two of the three 600 hp high pressure boilers that were installed roughly 50 years ago have already been replaced with two new, more efficient gas-fired boilers with the same capacity. The third older boiler has also been replaced, but with a smaller 350 hp gas-fired boiler. The smaller boiler will allow steam generation at a lower rate when that condition is appropriate to meet the hospital’s needs and heat from the turbines that would be otherwise wasted will be directed to help supply a portion of the hospital’s needs.

Last night, the Waban Area Council, at its February meeting, heard concerns from over 50 neighbors about this change that Newton Wellesley Hospital is proposing. City Councilors Downs and Humphrey who were in attendance, answered as many questions as they were able, but there remain many concerns that have not yet been addressed. Newton-Wellesley Hospital has communicated with WAC President, Chris Pitts that they are planning a community meeting at their facility to share information about the specifications of the equipment that the hospital is proposing to use and to answer technical details raised by the highly educated neighborhood group of interested advocates who are forming a Task Force to bring their concerns before the hospital, the City and the State, in an attempt to ensure the safest and least environmentally damaging effect on the populations that will be affected by these proposed changes.

The issues of greatest concern are:

  • The increase of noise that the turbines whirring 24-7 will have on neighbors and the need for a process to ensure no greater decibel levels than at present.
  • The total increase in particulates injected into Lower Wabaurndale’s atmosphere from the extra natural gas combustion used by the two turbines.
    1. This concern is especially important because there are several elementary schools and a pre-school whose air quality will be negatively impacted. A local pediatrician spoke last night about the fact that youngsters (whose heart rates are faster than adults) are more negatively impacted by air borne particulates than adults, increasing rates for asthma and other respiratory ills and being responsible for an additional number of annual deaths attributable to the increased environmental assault of fossil fuel combustion.
    2. While the Federal EPA and MA DEP must test whatever gas-fired turbines are specified and chosen by NWH for this project to ascertain that they meet both Federal and State levels of governmental standards, those standards are not tailored to take into consideration the surrounding neighborhoods’ population age distribution or densities. Other hospitals that have switched to this type of co-generation (e.g., Leahy in Burlington, and Northshore Medical Center) are not sited in the middle of residential neighborhoods like Waburndale, with a growing number of young children.
    3. The neighbors also are concerned that the hospital seems not to have considered the use of renewable energy sources instead of installing a system for the next several decades that will increase their use of natural gas and add to carbon emissions in general. While it might be legal for NWH to do so, it might not be sensible for them to proceed with this part of the project as currently conceived.
      1. The pediatrician who attended last night’s meeting also pointed out that economic equilibrium for the use of fossil fuels vs renewables is about to be reached within the next few years, so it would be unwise and costly for NWH to sign onto a long-term fossil fuel contract.
      2. Even the Newton City Council is concerned about continued fossil fuel usage and is considering a Home Rule Petition to the State to allow Newton to ban new developments/builds in the City that propose using fossil fuels.

The Waban Area Council will post updates on this issue on its website: If you sign up with your email address, you will receive notices of our monthly meetings, listing the various topics on our agendas. We always include an item called “Burning Issues from the Community,” during which issues of concern from the community are addressed.  Feel free to join the Waban Area Council at our next meeting on March 12 at 7:30 at the Waban Library Center.

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