Baker not doing enough on environmental justice
Orders and updates are not enough – a law is needed
ONE EVENING IN 2007, Chelsea, East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester residents packed Chelsea High School auditorium with signs that read “Clean Air is a Human Right” and “Got Asthma?” They assembled to fight back against a proposed diesel power plant, to be sited 250 feet from Chelsea’s only elementary school complex and on the banks of the Chelsea Creek.
The power plant would have added to the airport pollution, traffic congestion, salt piles, and other burdens facing the predominantly low-income Latinx community. Facing vigorous local opposition, the facility, backed by a developer who invests in clean energy elsewhere, was suspended months later.
Today, across the Chelsea Creek in East Boston, residents are fighting yet another dangerous proposal: an electrical substation on flood-prone land, next to 8-million gallons of jet fuel, and adjacent to a popular playground.
All people have a right to be protected from pollution. It’s guaranteed not just by our values, but by Article XCVII (97) of our state’s Constitution and by decades of federal policy. Those rights exist regardless of one’s race, English language ability, income, or immigration status. Yet there is no state law to enforce those rights and inadequate state policies have proven unequal to the task.
Roxbury and Springfield residents struggle with an asthma epidemic. Students in Boston Public Schools and renters in public housing experience asthma at rates that are far higher than their affluent peers and homeowners. East Boston residents, exposed to airport and marine vessel pollution, suffer high rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Incinerators surround communities like Haverhill and Lawrence, causing respiratory issues. And at the western edge of the state, residents lacking transit struggle to access healthcare facilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dangers of allowing pollution to concentrate in environmental justice communities. Rates of infection are much higher in these communities than wealthy and white communities, and eight of the top 10 municipalities with the highest number of COVID-19 cases are environmental justice communities.
COVID-19 is not the only threat facing these communities. At a time when we must take to the streets in defense of black lives, we know that institutional racism has been a core pillar that has contributed to environmental and public health inequities.
Yet the Baker administration has failed to act on the state’s environmental justice executive order, or the governor’s 2017 environmental justice policy update. The Commonwealth’s environmental justice director position sat vacant for more than three years, despite the executive order requiring the position to be permanently staffed. The administration has failed to follow a legislative requirement to report the impacts of climate change on communities of color.
Although every secretariat is required to design environmental justice strategies, most have failed to do so, including the Department of Transportation, which continues to provide unreliable service in many environmental justice communities. Inaction on transportation has left low-income hourly workers stuck in traffic, and riding on packed buses during the pandemic.Worse, the state has doubled down on policies that pollute environmental justice communities, while actively denying green economy opportunities. In Brockton, the Baker administration approved a gas power plant that, if constructed, will negatively impact residents of color and low-income families. In Weymouth, the administration approved a compressor station it knows will bring toxic pollutants to an overburdened community, though a federal court recently vacated the approval. A proposed change to a renewable energy program would prop up biomass in Springfield.
The Commonwealth must act today to implement the environmental justice executive order. Yet failure to secure environmental justice precedes the current administration, and strategies to advance equity must extend beyond it. No community should function as a dumping ground for failed policy, or face an economy that continues to exclude overburdened residents from decision-making tables. As legislators, we call for Massachusetts to fulfill its promises and enact the Environmental Justice Act to protect all communities from environmental harm and premature death.