Arborists challenge alleged connection between gas leaks and dying trees

Bob Ackley's efforts to link Georgetown's unhealthy trees to natural gas leaks have attracted skepticism from local arborists. (Grace Bird/The Current/August 2017)

Last week, after spending two days examining trees in Georgetown for signs of gas leak-related decline, natural gas industry veteran Bob Ackley recorded 40 to 60 leaks in Georgetown and “many dying trees.”

Ackley has claimed a connection between gas leaks and dying trees since leaving his industry job a decade ago. However, his contention that urban trees suffer slow deaths when exposed to natural gas has drawn some skepticism.

According to Michael Chuko of the D.C. Urban Forestry Division, there is no evidence to suggest that leaks commonly cause trees to die. The agency does not test trees for signs of gas damage because it doesn’t have the equipment or the expertise to do so, Chuko said. However, Washington Gas is required to call the city’s arborists when it performs an emergency tree excavation, and Chuko said he has never seen evidence that gas leaks are causing trees to die.

Mark Buscaino, executive director of the Casey Trees nonprofit, shares Chuko’s skepticism. Most urban trees die from a lack of soil, he said. If a tree were to die from a gas leak, it “would be brown all the way from the top to the bottom, it would just be dead. … It’s a sudden death,” Buscaino said.

In Ackley’s view, the Urban Forestry Division and Casey Trees are ill-informed about natural gas.

“They don’t have any data supporting or against what I’m talking about, so how would they know?” he told The Current. “I’m hoping to help D.C. trees and the whole District.”

Buscaino suggested Ackley’s motives are less altruistic: He has approached Casey Trees and the District government for funding to further investigate D.C. trees.

“He’s trying to peddle a product,” Buscaino said. “I really question what this person is saying.”

Bob Ackley checks a Georgetown street for possible natural gas leaks. (photo courtesy of Edward Segal)

Gas leaks are relatively common nationwide, and the District’s dated pipelines are no exception. A widely reported 2014 study found almost 6,000 gas leaks under D.C. streets, though few were deemed to be safety hazards. To repair the city’s dated pipeline system, Washington Gas has begun a 40-year plan to replace gas and service lines. The program aims to replace “aging infrastructure” and improve “operational safety and reliability, as well as helping to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Washington Gas spokesperson Bernie Tylor wrote in an email.

In Georgetown, resident Edward Segal has led efforts to address persistent leaks in his community. At one point, Segal said, he alerted the company about a leak outside his O Street NW home — and although Washington Gas began to repair the leak, the company abandoned the job halfway through and never returned.

Segal began a blog detailing his concerns about gas leaks at “Having lived in Georgetown on and off for more than 30 years, I am fed up with the never-ending and disturbing pattern of reported gas leaks, so-called repairs, and new reports of gas leaks in our neighborhood,” Segal wrote. Ackley contacted Segal after learning of the blog via a Google Alert.

Segal is lobbying Washington Gas to create an online portal mapping locations of gas leaks across D.C. “We just need transparency,” he said in an interview.

According to Tylor, a technician investigates every call that Washington Gas receives about a suspected leak. If a leak is confirmed, crews repair it immediately or follow up later, depending on the severity. Procedures comply with federal and D.C. regulatory requirements, Tylor said.

Joe Gibbons, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), joined Ackley as he worked last week and was alarmed by his claims of damage to the street trees. Gibbons said he planned to meet with Washington Gas to discuss the problem, but first plans to examine Ackley’s work thoroughly.

“We just want to look through it and get a handle on it,” Gibbons said.