Pollution inequality must stop; enforce roadmap law
Projects in East Boston, Peabody, and Weymouth are forms of racism
MASSACHUSETTS IS HOME to some of the greatest inequalities in pollution in the nation.
According to Northeastern Professor Daniel Faber, Boston ranks fourth for disparities in air pollution and Massachusetts ranks in the top three states in the country for locating hazardous waste facilities next to the elderly and people living in poverty. Moreover, he notes that “despite the fact that communities of color comprise only 9 percent of communities in this state, they receive over 40 percent of our carcinogens.”
We call on the new Massachusetts governor, Maura Healey, to show leadership in reversing this terrible historical precedent by prioritizing enforcement of the environmental justice provisions of the climate roadmap bill, which to date have been largely ignored.
Deliberately locating industry in environmental justice (EJ) communities, low income and minority communities that already disproportionately suffer from legacy pollutants due to the many industries located historically in their midst, is a glaring example of structural racism. Three energy infrastructure projects approved by the Baker administration in EJ communities around Boston in the last several years perpetuated this racist precedent: 1. the electric substation in East Boston; 2. the peaker plant in Peabody; and 3. the natural gas compressor in Weymouth.
The details vary, but the flawed state approval process and environmental justice issues for all three were discouragingly similar: all failed to demonstrate need, failed to benefit the local community, failed to address environmental justice concerns, and failed to consider an alternative location.
Importantly, all three failed to consider health risks, like the risk of flooding and explosion due to their low lying location in known flood plains, and ongoing health risks from the construction and operation of these projects, which release known carcinogens such as benzene, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter, and ozone, which are associated with increased risk of asthma, heart attacks, stroke and cancer.
Reminiscent of the practice of redlining from times past, these projects also decrease green space, which serves to magnify the heat island effect and increase heat illness in communities already less able to cope with extreme heat.
Moreover, all three projects will have negative effects on climate since all produce greenhouse gases, a known driver of the climate crisis. The bitter irony of these projects is that they are going forward at a time when Massachusetts is tasked by law with doing its utmost to stop the exponential increase in methane and CO2 in the atmosphere that is leading to health crisis after health crisis from heat waves, forest fires, flooding, and drought.
All of these risks are magnified by the close proximity of all three projects to homes, schools, or other pre-existing explosive industrial infrastructure, including massive petrochemical fuel tanks.
Thousands of children live, play and attend school in the shadow of these energy projects, and will be, along with the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, its chief victims. In the case of Peabody, a new school is in the active planning stages – and is slated to be built right next to the new polluting peaker plant. When these children develop asthma or other respiratory problems, the reason will be no secret.
Ignoring the law
Janet Rothschild, hearing officer at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on the Weymouth project, appropriately called for consideration of cumulative health impacts when approving new infrastructure projects; the recent roadmap bill passed in the last Massachusetts legislative session now requires consideration of cumulative health impacts for all new construction.
Yet, despite the language and intent of the 2021 Roadmap Act to address historical inequities in energy facility siting through enhanced outreach and enhanced environmental analysis – the several state boards and departments responsible for review of these projects ignored the individual and cumulative negative health effects, the climate impacts, and safety risks associated with these energy facilities.
In December, in the last days of the Baker administration, the Energy Facilities Siting Board rushed to approve, in less than 24 hours, 14 certificates needed to start construction on the Eversource substation. Inexplicably, both the DPU and the Energy Facilities Siting Board failed to apply the provisions of the recently passed roadmap bill, which requires that environmental justice be taken into account in the siting of new energy facilities.
Ignoring the community voice
The state boards and departments also ignored the voices of community members and legislators, and, in the case of the Eversource substation, the results of a 2022 referendum, in which 84 percent of Boston residents voted against its construction.
Many community meetings were not advertised – or were shared with the community with little or no advance notice. Meetings were frequently held during the workday, precluding attendance by working community members, or after the project had already been approved.
At one Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hearing, an East Boston community member observed, “The DEP is doing things to Eastie rather than for Eastie.” In East Boston and Weymouth, community members mourned the loss of green space: “They are taking away the one open green space.”
Ignoring local legislators
Local elected officials have been angered by the lack of transparency and lack of interest in their or their communities’ input on these projects. Rep. Adrian Madaro of East Boston has called it “a sham of a process.” City Councilor Gabriella Coletta commented at the Energy Facilities Siting Board hearing, “We don’t need another environmental burden.” Efforts by state Sen. Lydia Edwards to address environmental justice impacts and reach reasonable accommodation with Eversource were dismissed by the utility’s CEO/President as ”playing the race card.”
In East Boston and Weymouth, what had been promised to the community as a soccer field or, in the case of Weymouth, a park, will now be a source of air pollution and explosion risk, compromising health and trust.
In only one case – that of the proposed Palmer biomass plant in Springfield, whose permit was denied based on environmental justice concerns — has the Massachusetts DEP acted appropriately. Yet identical environmental justice issues exist for Weymouth, “Special Project 2015A” (the initial deceptively undescriptive name given to the large polluting peaker plant planned for Peabody), and the Eversource substation in East Boston.
Harm to patients
One of the authors cared for a 71-year-old patient dying of end-stage COPD who lived not far from the current two peaker plants and planned Peabody peaker. Her premature death was consistent with the data: a 2019 study found that the life expectancy in Morningside, Massachusetts, where a large peaker plant is located, is 71 years of age. Life expectancy in Berkshire County is seven years lower than the national average and 12 years lower than the life expectancy in some of Pittsfield’s wealthier southeast neighborhoods that have no peaker.
While it is admittedly difficult to “connect the dots” with certainty in any individual case, this is the sort of health outcome expected as more projects like those in Peabody, Weymouth, and East Boston move forward. As this infrastructure continues to be placed in EJ communities, we will see more strokes, more deaths due to emphysema, more heart attacks, and more cancer in these vulnerable populations — populations who by state law are entitled to the highest level of protection.
A recent study by Boston College Professor Dr. Philip Landrigan showed excess mortality from air pollution in every city and county in Massachusetts. This is not a partisan issue. It disproportionately affects low income neighborhoods and communities of color because that is where most heavy industry is sited. When air pollution increases, everyone’s health suffers. Air pollution does not respect zip codes.
Call to action: Time to change the playbook
Instead of perpetuating the health harms that have been created by years of environmental injustice, we call on state boards and agencies to work steadfastly to address them. The data demonstrating health harms are clear. The decision to locate polluting facilities in communities that already shoulder an unequal burden of negative health effects due to excess air, soil, and water pollution is unacceptable.
We would like to see a community-based approach to energy needs. With our changing climate, it will be important for communities to have locally sourced clean energy like geothermal, solar, and wind. In that new paradigm, residents of environmental justice communities like those living in East Boston, Peabody, and Weymouth will no longer be forced to bear the disparate burdens of energy infrastructure that is not for their benefit and has negative health outcomes like cancer, respiratory disease, and heart disease. Fully implementing the Roadmap Act’s intent throughout state decision making, one of the Healey administration’s highest priorities, is a first step towards greater health equity in Massachusetts.
Dr. Brita Lundberg is chair of the board at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility,. a group of nationally-recognized experts in public health, cancer epidemiology, occupational medicine, environmental health, emergency medicine, disaster preparedness and the health effects of climate change. Dr. Adrienne Allen is medical \director of quality, safety and sustainability for the North Shore Physicians Group (Mass General Brigham) and member of Climate Code Blue, a physician advocacy group focused on the health hazards of climate change.