EJ communities finally get a say

But wood-burning power plants not needed anywhere

FOR DECADES, low-income, immigrant, Indigenous, and communities of color across Massachusetts have been overburdened by air pollution from power plants, congested highways, and industrial facilities. Known as environmental justice populations, these areas have had little say in the projects that are built in their neighborhoods, and they have had little power to put an end to the pollution that results.

Unfortunately, these impacts are a direct result of state policy. The law has historically put low-income, Black, immigrant, and Indigenous communities in harm’s way and overburdened them with pollution. All the while, residents have been denied a voice in the siting of new industrial projects – like power plants and substations – that negatively impact their neighborhoods.

That all changed earlier this year, when a new bill was signed into law that gives decision-making power to historically sidelined communities and limits where polluting facilities can be built.

Importantly, the new law, supported by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Table, includes an official definition of what is considered an environmental justice population. As a result, more people will be included in decisions about their neighborhoods and will not be forced to accept living with even more toxic pollution around their homes. It also means important resources can be directed to the areas that need them most.

Prior to the new law, environmental justice populations were defined in state policy based on income. Between 2017 and early 2021, 72 percent of census block groups statewide were designated as environmental justice populations.  The new definition passed this year combines race and income criteria, since the siting of polluting facilities has primarily been done on the basis of race. The new definition has narrowed the number of communities so designated to just 41 percent of census block groups. This will help channel the state’s limited resources to the communities that need them most.

The law also makes it easier for people from environmental justice populations to weigh in on proposed projects that will happen in their own neighborhoods. It will ensure that communities already overburdened by pollution are not left behind during the clean energy transition that we know is necessary after dire warnings from the UN climate report.

Notably, the law also includes principles about what can and cannot be built in or near an environmental justice population. We are already seeing the effects of this policy, as state officials have proposed new regulations for the construction of wood-burning power plants.

Critics of the proposed regulations argue that we shouldn’t be subsidizing them anywhere. This is absolutely true – Massachusetts shouldn’t be supporting burning wood for electricity anywhere in the Commonwealth – but that does not mean we don’t need enhanced environmental protections in some communities.

The state has announced that wood-burning power plants will not qualify for state subsidies if they are located in an environmental justice population or within five miles of one. This means that only 35 of the state’s 351 cities and towns would be eligible for the subsidies, which would be necessary for building a new wood-burning power plant.

While this is certainly good news for the roughly 90 percent of communities that will not see one of these polluting facilities built, it should not be a question of “build it here, not there” as some have suggested. We want clean air and renewable energy for all.

Wood-burning power plants spew harmful emissions that poison the air in surrounding areas. They worsen asthma and other respiratory conditions and set us back in reaching our mandatory climate goals. They don’t belong in an EJ community or any community. It’s time for the Commonwealth to stop providing subsidies for facilities that have historically been considered “renewable” but in reality are toxic and archaic. Instead of wood burning facilities, the state needs to focus on truly renewable sources like wind and solar.

Meet the Author

Staci Rubin

Conservation Law Foundation
Meet the Author

Andrea Nyamekye

Campaign and policy director, Neighbor to Neighbor
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Sabrina Davis

Fall River organizer, Coalition for Social Justice
Massachusetts has taken a huge step forward in ensuring that communities have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods. It’s long past time we stop forcing low-income communities and communities of color to bear the burdens of polluting infrastructure. But that doesn’t mean we simply move the pollution elsewhere. Wood-burning power plants do not belong in anyone’s community.

The state needs to get serious about reducing toxic emissions at the source, and we can start by cutting all subsidies for wood-burning power plants and turning towards clean energy instead.

Staci Rubin is vice president of the environmental justice program at Conservation Law Foundation, Andrea Nyamekye is the co-executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor, Maria Belen Power is the associate executive director of GreenRoots, Dwaign Tyndal is the executive director of Alternatives for Community & Environment, and Sabrina Davis is the Fall River organizer at Coalition for Social Justice. The authors are members of the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Table, a coalition of organizations focused on advancing environmental justice.