Eastie needs straight answers from Eversource

Is a new substation in the community really necessary?

EAST BOSTON is a community that is used to having to defend itself against environmental injustices. In the 1960s, Massport’s expansion of Logan Airport led the Maverick Street Mothers to block the road with baby carriages. In the following decades, the neighborhood’s activism led Massport to build parks that are among the best in the city. Although the neighborhood has gone through a lot of change, it’s still at its heart a working-class, immigrant community that is proud of its activist history. Today the neighborhood again finds itself again on the defensive. This time, Eastie has to contend with Eversource and a proposed electric substation on the banks of the Chelsea Creek across the street from a park and playground, homes, and a jet fuel storage facility.

Eversource has said publicly that the rapid development of housing in East Boston has led to growing demand for electricity in the area which requires a new $60-plus million substation. But the company hasn’t made its analysis publicly available. Ratepayers that would pay for the project through fees in their monthly electric bills are expected to take them at their word. The Union of Concerned Scientists has countered this argument by providing data from the operator of the New England power grid showing increased efficiency in new buildings and appliances has caused demand to plateau, even as development continues.

At the same time Eversource argues the need for the proposal is being driven by residential development, the utility is making a separate argument to state regulators. The site is located in a designated port area, which, according to state rules and regulations, should only have buildings that are directly tied to maritime activities or industries. Eversource in its state filings is arguing that it should be allowed to build the substation in the designated port area because it will provide electricity to nearby marine-related businesses.

Eversource needs to give a straight answer to the question of who this substation is really being built for. The first thing Eversource should be required to prove is that a substation is necessary and who needs it.

The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act requires the state to consider the environmental impacts of its actions, including any permits it issues. Environmental justice policies have been put in place to protect vulnerable communities like East Boston that deal with more than their fair share of environmental burdens. Most recently, the city of Boston has enacted its own Wetlands Protection Ordinance. Under the new law, anyone applying for a permit must prove that their proposal “will not have an unacceptable significant or cumulative adverse effect” on “the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”

This is the second burden of proof that Eversource must meet as it moves forward with its proposal. Up to this point, the company has not only failed to do so, it hasn’t shown any interest in trying. During a recent Energy Facilities Siting Board meeting at East Boston High School, one of the few review hearings to actually take place in the neighborhood, Eversource representatives answered nearly every question by telling community members to review the company’s filings with the state.

Eversource also needs to explain why two substations are needed less than a half-mile from each other.  Massport has approved the construction of a smaller substation on airport land. Eversource and Massport could potentially partner to place all of the electrical distribution upgrades the company says are needed there instead of the Eagle Hill neighborhood.

Combining the two projects could allow for Eversource to put the substation in a location that is secure, away from homes and playgrounds, and doesn’t flood. Eversource has refused to seriously look at this potential alternative. Until it does, it can’t say that it has proven that the current proposal is the best possible solution to the energy needs of the area.

Finally, Eversource needs to prove it can be trusted.  One way of building trust is through a transparent and accessible process. Here again Eversource has failed East Boston. From the time it first proposed the substation in 2015, Eversource has excluded a majority of the East Boston residents from the conversation. Over half of East Boston households speak Spanish at home. By law, the approval process for this facility is required to ensure participation from residents of limited English proficiency. However, Eversource on multiple occasions failed to provide adequate interpreting services or properly translated documents.

This process is complicated and involves regulatory language that’s difficult to understand for native English speakers. By neglecting required language access efforts, Eversource has made it nearly impossible for non-English speakers to participate. In order to prove to the community that the substation won’t have unacceptable effects on their health and safety, Eversource has to engage with the community as a whole, especially the neighborhood’s non-English speaking population.

On Friday, the Boston City Council will hold a hearing to discuss the proposal. The hearing will be an opportunity for Eversource to make its case to the community. Finally, Everource can answer all of the unanswered questions the community has about the need for the substation, whether any alternative energy source facilities could be built instead, and whether the proposed facility is in the best location.  Eversource can bring all the evidence and answer the questions.

The hearing is only the next step in the lengthy process. The proposal is still being reviewed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and a March hearing of the Energy Facilities Siting Board was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. G  At the city level, the Boston Conservation Commission is still reviewing Eversource’s application for a permit under the Wetlands Protection Ordinance.

Eversource has thus far failed to prove that East Boston needs a substation and that its location and design won’t cause injury. Unless Eversource can prove that the community needs a substation and that the substation as proposed is the best solution for the neighborhood’s energy needs, no agency or elected official should approve Eversource’s proposal.

Meet the Author

Lydia Edwards

State senator, East Boston
Lydia Edwards is the Boston city councilor for District 1.