Springfield, Massachusetts. Credit: formulanone / Creative Commons

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A month after Massachusetts adopted a sweeping climate bill, activists and lawmakers are gearing up to ensure the state fully implements the new law’s landmark environmental justice provisions despite the current administration’s mixed track record on prioritizing such measures.

“We are going to be watchdogging what happens,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots. “We’re going to continue to put a lot of pressure on the state to make sure they’re implementing the environmental justice language as we envisioned it.”

In March, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a wide-ranging climate bill that includes provisions aimed at reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, increasing renewable energy development, creating jobs and economic growth in the clean energy sector, and strengthening environmental justice protections. The new law has been hailed for including some of the most aggressive and progressive measures in the country. 

The environmental justice sections of the law have garnered particular attention. Advocates hope these measures will help reduce dangerous emissions and pollution in overburdened communities. They are also hoping to avoid another, less obvious danger. 

As the state transitions from fossil fuels, transportation, heating, and other systems will be increasingly electrified. This shift will require grid upgrades to handle the growing and evolving load. Activists want to ensure that already marginalized neighborhoods do not bear the brunt of the impact of these changes.

“The hope would be that we’re transitioning away from facilities that use extractive fossil fuels,” said Sofia Owen, staff attorney for environmental justice group Alternatives for Community and the Environment. “Then, as we are electrifying, that we’re not continuing to just disproportionately site those facilities in places like Chelsea and East Boston and Roxbury.”

With the adoption of the new law, the concept of environmental justice will be enshrined into the law for the first time ever. Previous definitions of the concept were established through executive order, and were therefore vulnerable to change along with the priorities of any given administration. 

The law describes the concept as “protection from environmental pollution and the ability to live in and enjoy a clean and healthy environment.” An “environmental justice population” is defined as a neighborhood with low median incomes, a high percentage of minorities, or a significant number of households without English language proficiency. 

These basic details matter immensely, advocates said. 

“An accurate definition is really critical to making sure those protections are going where they should go,” said state Rep. Adrian Madaro, who originally authored much of the environmental justice language in the bill.

Several provisions of the law regulate activities in and near environmental justice areas. Any project that could affect air quality — such as fossil fuel-burning power plants, manufacturing facilities, or waste combustion — proposed for within five miles of an environmental justice neighborhood will be required to submit an environmental impact report to the state. The law also strengthens requirements for project developers to engage with affected residents, calling for public meetings to be held in accessible locations and for communications to be translated into the languages commonly spoken in the target area.

The state will also have to consider how any new proposals would add to the cumulative environmental impact on a community, a measure that activists consider vital. 

“It would essentially stop or slow down the siting of any new polluting industries in Chelsea,” said Bongiovanni, whose work focuses on the city of Chelsea and the adjacent neighborhood of East Boston. “It would start to balance out who has the burdens and who has the benefits.” 

The administration was supportive of the environmental justice provisions during discussions leading to the passage of the bill, advocates said. At the same time, however, some of Baker’s previous policy choices leave them wary now. 

Some pointed to the state’s handling of a proposed electrical substation in East Boston, a process in which advocates say community members have routinely been shut out by meetings scheduled for inaccessible times and places, and without available translation. 

Others noted the new law’s requirement for an environmental justice council to advise the administration in the development of policies and standards. A similar council was called for in an executive order issued by former Gov. Deval Patrick at the end of his term in 2014, but Baker has never convened the panel. 

“That is a requirement that has been overdue for well over five years at this point,” said Staci Rubin, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “We’re eager to see that group formed and for the majority of members to be from environmental justice populations.”

Advocates, therefore, intend to keep a watchful eye on the state’s progress toward making the promise of the new climate bill a reality. 

Several tasks are ahead for the administration. The state’s online mapping tool identifying environmental justice communities must be updated, and regulatory processes must be updated to prioritize environmental justice protections. The Department of Environmental Protection must also develop metrics and systems for determining and assessing cumulative environmental impact. 

“We’re going to be keeping pressure on [the state] to really adopt this legislation and implement it,” Bongiovanni said.

Even as advocates keep a close eye on the detail of the state’s progress, there is, they said, reason to be hopeful. 

Some pointed to a proposed biomass plant in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield, an area with many environmental justice neighborhoods that is also ranked as having the worst asthma problem in the country. The plant, which received a permit but had not begun construction, faced strong opposition. In early April, about a week after the climate bill was signed, the state revoked the plant’s permit. 

Though the new law does not apply to projects already in the works, some took this move as a positive sign that the Baker administration is ready to prioritize environmental justice and climate issues. 

“We’ve seen some things that give me hope already,” Owen said. “There’s a growing acknowledgment, even in places where there may have not been before, of the necessity of considering environmental justice.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.