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A long-simmering fight against a proposed electrical substation in East Boston has inspired a push to change how energy facilities are sited in Massachusetts.
At the heart of the debate is the Energy Facilities Siting Board. The independent, nine-member panel approves or denies proposals for large energy projects including power plants, electric transmission infrastructure, intrastate natural gas pipelines, and natural gas storage tanks.
“We’re seeking to reform the Energy Facilities Siting Board to make it more accountable and to make it a process that actually has the best interests of the residents of Massachusetts in mind,” said state Rep. Adrian Madaro. Madaro lives three blocks from the planned substation and has introduced a bill that would demand more proactive and effective community outreach, among other reforms.
The board’s mandate is to safeguard the reliability of the state’s power supply with minimal environmental impact and at the lowest possible cost. Advocates, however, say it does not do a good enough job considering the needs and concerns of the communities in which projects are to be located. The problem, they contend, is particularly acute in environmental justice areas — communities with a high proportion of residents of color, low-income households, or residents who are not proficient in English.
“The current siting process has not worked for generations of [these] communities,” said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation. “We need a holistic review of how we do siting.”
An East Boston example
The catalyst for the bill was an electrical substation that utility Eversource is planning to build in a spot that many area residents call extremely problematic. Eversource contends the substation, first proposed for the site in 2014, is needed to handle anticipated demand in East Boston and neighboring Chelsea. Advocates dispute this claim.
The site is across the street from a popular local playground and in an area that is prone to flooding. It is also located close to storage tanks holding thousands of gallons of jet fuel for use at nearby Logan International Airport and heating fuel for distribution throughout the region.
Furthermore, East Boston and Chelsea are already designated environmental justice communities with long histories of several environmental risk factors. Both are densely populated and hemmed in by major, often-congested highways. Logan International Airport is located in East Boston, and roughly two-thirds of Chelsea’s area is occupied by commercial and industrial uses.
From the beginning of the planning process, the residents of the area have been virtually shut out, advocates said. Board meetings were held in the middle of weekdays in offices in downtown Boston, making it very difficult for working residents to attend. Materials were not made available in Spanish and other languages spoken in the area, which has a large immigrant population. Translation at meetings was often inaccurate, haphazard, or absent. In 2020, a group of legal and environmental organizations filed a federal civil rights complaint against state agencies for these lapses.
“It was a process that intentionally excluded the residents that live there,” said María Belén Power, associate executive director of environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, one of the organizations active in the fight against the substation and a party to the federal complaint.
Still, activists rallied residents and encouraged a surge of opposition. The siting board heard from dozens of residents pleading against the project. But when the board voted, it unanimously approved Eversource’s plan.
“When a community is pretty much universally opposed, and the project nevertheless receives a unanimous vote of approval from the [board], it really underscores how flawed and broken the process is,” Madaro said.
The importance of the board’s processes, however, extends well beyond East Boston and Chelsea, advocates said. As Massachusetts pursues its aggressive goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050, the coming decades are expected to be a time of significant change in the state’s energy system. Offshore wind farms will be coming online, solar installations will be growing, and the electric grid will need to grow and adapt as more vehicles and buildings switch from fossil fuels to electric power.
For advocates, now is the time to put systems in place to ensure this rapid change does not harm already vulnerable populations.
Madaro’s bill, he said, aims to fix the flaws that the East Boston process exposed. The legislation would expand the board to 11 members, adding a member representing environmental justice communities and one representing Indigenous populations. The current members include representatives from several state departments and public slots representing labor, environmental groups, and the energy sector.
The bill would also require project planners, before submitting a project for the board’s approval, to actively engage with the population surrounding an intended site by having materials translated into the languages used within the community and holding public meetings specifically to solicit local feedback. Planners would then be required to address concerns raised during this process.
“Once the community learns about a project it can surface concerns, ideas, and also potential alternative locations,” Rubin said. “The goal is to avoid some of those litigious fights that could have been avoided if people just talked before the project was fully baked.”
In addition, the proposed measures would require project planners to identify any nearby environmental justice neighborhoods and complete an assessment of the likely benefits and potential harms to all surrounding communities. A project would not be allowed to proceed if this report concludes it would result in additional burdens to an environmental justice population.
Justice vs. jobs?
This last provision, however, worries state Sen. Michael Barrett, who believes it would actually hurt the very people it aims to help by hindering the creation of jobs in renewable energy. Barrett, chair of the committee that is currently considering the bill, objects to the language that says a project may only be approved if it does not impose any burdens on an environmental justice community. All projects have both burdens and benefits, he said, so the requirement in the bill would block any sizable project and the jobs that would come with it.
He points to places like New Bedford and Salem. The cities, home to large environmental justice populations, are expected to be major hubs of the growing offshore wind industry in the state.
“This bill would essentially bar almost all the jobs these communities hope to realize,” Barrett said, addressing Rubin at a hearing earlier this month. “You’ve written the wrong bill for the wrong era — every paragraph in it poses a threat to the clean energy industry.”
Bill supporters say that Barrett’s argument unnecessarily pits jobs and renewable energy against public health and environmental justice. They are committed to tweaking the language in the bill to allay some of Barrett’s concerns, but they do not believe the bill, even as currently written, would have the catastrophic impact the senator predicts.
Barrett also objected to the idea that the bill would assess renewable energy projects with the same criteria it would apply to fossil fuel facilities. Advocates, however, argue that clean energy projects should not get a pass on environmental justice.
“It really matters how we get there, not just getting there,” Power said. “We’re not really addressing environmental justice and decades of environmental racism if we don’t change the way in which we site these facilities, and really center the voices of the people who have been hurt the most by the climate crisis.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct a misspelling of María Belén Power’s last name.