OUR COUNTRY’S CLIMATE story is full of horrors – swelling sea levels, toxic pollution, crushing heat, historic hurricanes, and fires leaving unimaginable wreckage in their wake. But underneath these headlines is a chapter that too often gets glanced over: the exploitation and marginalization of American communities forced to bear the brunt of the crisis.
This is a story about injustice. The same people and places shouldering generations of racism, disenfranchisement and oppression by our system find themselves carrying the burden of climate change and environmental degradation today. It is no coincidence that, across the country, these places are disproportionately black and brown, immigrant, poor. It is no coincidence that our country takes advantage of them when it comes to our environment the same way it does when it comes to our education, transportation, housing and health care.
We see it in Houston, where low-income areas still struggle to become whole years after Hurricane Harvey. We see it in Puerto Rico, where our country’s neglect of some of its poorest citizens was on shameful display after Hurricane Maria. We see it in Detroit and New Orleans where communities already suffering from a concentration of aging infrastructure and toxic pollution, from a lack of access to clean air and water, are disadvantaged further by a lack of resources necessary to prepare for climate change impacts and community recovery.
And we see it right here in Massachusetts, where – despite commendable leadership on climate resilience and clean energy development – our Commonwealth has failed to address the profound burdens on local communities already waging a frontline fight against concentrated environmental hazards and the immediate impacts of climate change. Studies show that communities of color in Massachusetts bear over 20 times the environmental burden of predominantly white communities.
A proposed electrical substation in East Boston highlights this entrenched, generational inequity.
For any Bostonian, the industrial landscape of East Boston and Chelsea is familiar. There are the imposing tanks of jet fuel, the jaw-dropping salt mounds, the noise pollution from Logan Airport and the air pollution from a congested Tobin Bridge. There are the statistics about higher childhood asthma rates, ‘heat islands,’ transportation inadequacy and concentrated toxicity – all telltale signs of a community overburdened.
Despite this, Eversource has proposed building a new $62 million electrical substation in the Eagle Hill area of East Boston, paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers, to connect high-voltage transmission lines from across the region.
There are myriad issues with this project. The site along Chelsea Creek is flood-prone, with flooding projected to intensify in the decades to come due to climate change, creating a serious public safety risk. It is in close proximity to the jet fuel tanks, raising additional concerns about substation fires or explosions, like those seen in New York in the aftermath of Sandy. It is directly across the street from City Yards, a popular local playground, in the heart of a neighborhood already crushed by this kind of infrastructure. Not surprisingly but inexcusably, the approval process has lacked meaningful community input, with little public outreach and inadequate translation services at siting board meetings.
Eversource has maintained that the project is needed to meet electrical demand. This assertion is undermined by recent data that shows our region experiencing a continual decrease in demand due to the success of energy efficiency projects. That means we risk leaving the local community and ratepayers across Eastern New England holding the bag for a costly and potentially dangerous infrastructure project that may not be necessary at all. Even if you ignore that data and accept the utility’s assertion that this is essential, it’s hard to look at the facts and conclude Eagle Hill is the appropriate place to move forward.
There is no question: The state Department of Energy and Environment should instruct the Energy Facilities Siting Board – tasked with approving the project – to press pause. They should re-open this case and consider the questions of both environmental justice and need in a full and transparent manner, with ample community input, based on the latest data available. They should scrupulously consider alternative sites instead of plowing forward with a project that will put the health and safety of an overburdened community further at risk. They should listen to powerful voices on the ground like GreenRoots, an organization with a 25-year history of working on environmental justice along the Chelsea Creek, which is leading a grassroots effort of advocates, activists and local families to, once again, fight for their own backyard.
For generations, our national climate and environmental efforts have failed to center justice and equity. We have focused on markets, private companies and incentives, rather than people, community and health. We have allowed energy companies, major utilities and corporate polluters to unilaterally define our energy infrastructure needs, no matter the impact on our people and our planet.
The result is deeply felt in communities like East Boston and Chelsea, where residents have been forced to sacrifice the green space, clean air, and livable, breathable streets every hometown deserves. Massachusetts has a chance to do things differently with this project. We should seize it.
Joseph P. Kennedy III represents the Fourth Congressional District in the House and is a candidate for US Senate.