Troubling environmental pattern emerging again in New Bedford

Residents left out of discussion concerning waste-processing facility

MASSACHUSETTS IS TAKING significant steps to address climate change.  From the release of the Clean Energy and Climate Plan to the creation of the climate chief position, there are signs the state is moving full steam ahead in addressing the crises facing impacted communities. But it’s going to take some meaningful action and committed trust-building for environmental justice leaders who have been burned by the system too many times to stop worrying about old patterns re-emerging.

What is environmental justice? The Environmental Protection Agency defines it as “the fair and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

The Public Health Post said the 2050 roadmap law –An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy — marks the first time an environmental justice law has been codified into Massachusetts state law. This is important because now it is within the state’s purview to ensure lower income communities and communities of color do not continue to disproportionately suffer the effects of environmental pollution, degradation, or abuse.

What does this look like in communities? Companies apply for permits, use industry terms like “best management practices” and “state of the art technology,” submit studies that show emissions are within standards, and get a green light to build or continue operating harmful projects that further contribute to cumulative impact on residents.

Risks of hazardous conditions, environmental degradation, fires and explosions, or health problems posed by projects like the Weymouth Compressor Station, East Boston Substation, Saugus Wheelabrator Incinerator and Landfill, and the Peabody Peaker Plant. Massachusetts permitting agencies have frequently allowed companies to circumvent regulations, with empty promises to self-monitor, self-report, and not pollute. But the community bears the brunt of the pollution burden and is often left to pick up the pieces after companies leave or their project fails.

This same pattern is repeating itself in New Bedford, with South Coast Renewables, which is also known as Parallel Products. The company claims to be abiding by environmental justice regulations and elected city officials tout a great deal they’ve brokered for the city, but the residents who will directly experience the impacts of a new waste processing facility every day were left out of the conversation. Backroom deals are the antithesis of “fair and meaningful involvement,” yet they have continuously been the status quo.

The reasons for concern don’t end there. Beveridge and Diamond, the law firm hired by the city to negotiate the new host community agreement, is the same law firm working to push through the Aries Biosolids Gasification Facility in nearby Taunton, which will produce and spread PFAs far and wide. Given the close ties these two projects have had behind the scenes throughout their development, this raises questions about the law firm chosen to represent the “best interests” of New Bedford residents.

Lastly, the 2030 Zero Waste Master Plan that Massachusetts released in 2021 included Parallel Products in their list of operating waste processing facilities, though the project had not yet filed with the Department of Environmental Protection, nor had it completed the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office review. Residents can’t help but wonder what decisions were made outside of public view for a facility not yet approved for construction or operation to be included in a list of existing facilities.

Hopefully all of these concerning practices are in the past, and we can eagerly look forward. Maura Healey was a helpful ally in the fight of Southeastern Massachusetts residents against a new liquified natural gas terminal during her time as attorney general, and those same residents are hopeful that strong partnership will continue. From filling out the rest of her cabinet with strong appointees, to attentively implementing the 2050 Roadmap Law’s protections for environmental justice communities, there is a lot Healey can do to ensure that past harm will not be repeated.

Wendy Morrill is president of South Coast Neighbors United, which opposes “any proposed project in SouthCoast Massachusetts with the potential to harm the  environment, the health of humans in close proximity, and peaceful enjoyment of property of the local homeowners.”