State not living up to environmental justice responsibilities

Chelsea incidents with asbestos, construction dust illustrate lack of concern

JUST OVER A YEAR after Gov. Charlie Baker signed “An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy,” which contained protections for environmental justice populations, the state has found itself roiled in controversy for sacrificing the health and well-being of those very same, protected populations.

Investigative reporting revealed that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection allowed the dumping of hazardous waste on state property next to a public housing development in Chelsea.  A mountain of asbestos-laden construction debris from a project more than six miles from Chelsea sat for months on end, uncovered, and less than 150 feet from low-income residents and neighborhoods of color.

Asbestos is a known carcinogen that was banned from use in 1989 due to its life-threatening impacts.  When questioned about the hazardous waste next to vulnerable populations in Chelsea, Baker “categorically reject[ed]” the connection between this incident and environmental racism. The governor stated that his administration has a track record of treating Chelsea residents with respect.

In fact, the only track record the state maintains is one for dismissing the lives and concerns of environmental justice communities. The Baker administration has skirted multiple laws and policies that have been promulgated to protect environmental justice populations.

While the term “environmental justice” may be new to some, the principle that low-income communities and communities of color should not be disproportionately burdened by toxic pollution has been in existence in Massachusetts for decades. Before the climate roadmap legislation was passed, with protections for environmental justice populations, there were statewide policies and executive orders on environmental justice. Yet there clearly is a disconnect with moving from principle to practice. Rather than prioritizing environmental justice populations, and mandating enforcement of violators, the state itself is the violator.

The people of Chelsea, a low-income community and community of color where every census block identifies as an environmental justice population –  therefore protected under the new climate roadmap legislation – has been exposed to cancer-causing asbestos for days, weeks, months on end.  As we experienced high winds throughout the spring,  what prevented the asbestos from becoming airborne and breathed in by vulnerable Chelsea residents – babies, young families, aging populations, veterans, immigrants, refugees?

This incident is no one-off for the state’s Department of Transportation.  The very same residents were impacted by the state transportation agency in 2020, during the height of COVID when Chelsea was the epicenter of the pandemic in Massachusetts.  During construction on the Tobin Bridge, improperly contained pulverized demolition debris became airborne and blanketed neighborhoods with a thick coating of dust.  This violation alone led to Chelsea finally having its first ever permanent air monitor.  Chelsea has some of the highest statewide rates of asthma and chronic cardiovascular and respiratory disease.  Add airborne dust particles to already compromised health, and the mixture can be deadly.

Despite proclamations from Baker and his departments that environmental justice communities will be protected and prioritized, low-income communities and communities of color continue to be the sacrificial lambs. Disproportionately burdened communities like Chelsea, East Boston, Roxbury, Mattapan, Fall River, Springfield, and Lawrence for too long have hosted power plants, electrical substations, petroleum storage facilities, airports, airport-related industries, major highways, bridges and tunnels, sewage treatment plants, and so much more. Even though all residents of the Commonwealth need this infrastructure and enjoy the benefits from them, only a few of us – Black, Brown, immigrant, indigenous, and low-income communities – have to carry the burden while lacking environmental benefits.  Environmental justice communities are being neglected, time and time again.

Massachusetts’ climate roadmap legislation mandates the creation of an EJ Advisory Council.  It has been more than a year since adoption of the legislation and the governor has yet to activate this body.  Clearly a strong council is needed.

Systemic racism and classism are not in Massachusetts’ past; they are playing out daily and having deadly consequences. Massachusetts is supposed to be leading the nation with one of the most ambitious climate plans, in one of the most progressive states.  Until we recognize and correct the failures, the only thing Massachusetts will be on the cutting edge for is poisoning our most vulnerable residents.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Roseann Bongiovanni

Executive director, GreenRoots Inc., Chelsea
The governor has an opportunity to categorically reject environmental racism and classism. He must fulfill the obligations of the climate roadmap law by appointing members to the EJ Advisory Council who have experience in implementing environmental justice.  He should appoint a new secretary of energy and environmental affairs who centers environmental justice and equity and who will take bold action to protect and invest in low-income communities and communities of color.  Furthermore, the governor should mandate that the Department of Transportation bring on an environmental justice director to ensure no more lives are put in harm’s way by deleterious decision-making.

Lastly, the governor and his administration, including his relevant cabinet secretaries and the state highway administrator, should say to the people of Chelsea those three little they refuse to say and yet mean so much. It is time for the state to own up to its failures and say “I am sorry.” Having the courage to be humble, admit mistakes, and repair the harm can go a long way.

Dwaign Tyndal is the executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) based in Roxbury and Roseann Bongiovanni is the executive director of GreenRoots based in Chelsea.