COVID-19’s link to environmental racism

Even now it’s happening along Chelsea Creek

IT IS ESSENTIAL that we make the connections between years of systemic environmental racism and the ravages of COVID-19. This public health emergency is unprecedented, but it’s hard not to see the stark parallels between this crisis and our climate crisis – the science denial that has stood in the way of making progress, the systemic racism that leads to disparate health outcomes, and the bold, urgent action we now must take to save lives and save our planet.

Chelsea, one of the smallest cities in the Commonwealth, has a COVID-19 infection rate – 522 per 10,000 residents — far exceeding that of any other municipality in Massachusetts.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley feels strongly about the situation. “People of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and Native American populations, are getting sick and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. Hundreds of years of redlining and lending disparities, hiring discrimination, divestment in neighborhoods of color, combined with fear and xenophobia stoked by Donald Trump, has led to black and brown Americans getting sick and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates,” she said.

At GreenRoots, an environmental justice organization in Chelsea, the reasons for the higher COVID19 rates are clear:

  1. Contaminated air and water leading to some of the state’s highest incidences of asthma, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and cancer
  2. The inability to socially distance in overcrowded housing and on overcrowded public transportation
  3. A population comprised of essential workers (grocery store workers, transport drivers, produce packers, janitors, Logan airport staff, and more) who must go to work, thereby increasing their daily chances of exposure
  4. Language isolation in a gateway community where more than 35 languages are spoken
Chelsea’s prime location on the waterfront, just to the north of Boston, has made it an ideal location for industry. Chelsea Creek connects to the Inner Boston Harbor, allowing for cargo ships to enter through Boston Harbor and carry their loads up the Chelsea Creek to industrial facilities. Chelsea Creek hosts all of Logan Airport’s jet fuel, heating fuel, and road salt for most New England communities and many more noxious industries.

The New England Produce Center, one of the largest produce centers in the nation, is located in Chelsea and provides all of New England, some Mid-Atlantic states, and southern Canadian regions with produce. While all of New England, southern states and Canadian provinces benefit (heating fuel, road salt, jet fuel, produce, etc.) from the industries along the Chelsea Creek and/or in Chelsea, these same industries cause devastating public health and environmental inequities for our residents.

All of these industries have contaminated Chelsea’s land, air, and water for years. Chelsea’s overall diesel exhaust levels exceed the EPA’s reference concentration by 20 percent. The seven oil terminals along the Chelsea Creek committed 76 chemical exceedances of their federal wastewater discharge permits over a five-year period; and, over the past two decades, the Chelsea Creek has seen more than 100,000 gallons of petroleum product spilled into its waters. The entire Chelsea Creek is considered non-swimmable, non-fishable, and non-drinkable.

This contaminated air and water leads to Chelsea residents having some of the state’s worst public health indicators pre-pandemic. Asthma and chronic respiratory disease rates in Chelsea are among the state’s highest. The same is true for Chelsea’s rate for strokes and major cardiovascular disease. Chelsea is also in the highest category for expected lifetime cancer risks from diesel exposure.

My colleague, Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, said making the connection between environmental injustice and COVID-19 is critical to understand the disease and who it impacts most. “We must recognize that low-income communities and communities of color have shouldered the burdens of living next to toxic facilities, compromising public health and making vulnerable populations even more susceptible to life-affecting impacts like COVID19,” she says.

This pandemic is devastating the community of Chelsea. Infection rates continue to climb. On a daily basis, lines for food snake around multiple city blocks. The National Guard was called in, per request of the city and nonprofit leaders. People are sick and terrified about the future. People are dying. And we know that years of environmental injustice significantly contributed to this situation.

Meet the Author

Leslie Dominguez-Santos

Director of development, GreenRoots/Chelsea
It is time for Massachusetts to address its own environmental injustices. Even now during the pandemic, a high voltage electrical substation and high voltage transmission lines are proposed for the shores of Chelsea Creek, in a flood zone, next to 8 million gallons of jet fuel in a densely populated environmental justice neighborhood. It is exactly these kinds of polluting industries that have compromised the public health of Chelsea and East Boston residents for years.

We have a duty to put these lessons to work toward achieving our dream of a better world. The choices we make during the response to the coronavirus will shape society and policymaking for decades to come. We must make the right choices. We wouldn’t be in our lines of work—government, public service, activism, organizing—if we weren’t optimists at our cores. We believe in the coalition of communities calling for change. Policy is not abstract; it is about who thrives, and who has clean air to breathe. And we know that our movements are deeply connected.  We must act swiftly for climate justice while fighting for an equitable recovery from this pandemic. Relief and justice cannot come quickly enough.

Leslie Dominguez-Santos is director of development for GreenRoots, an environmental justice organization based in Chelsea.