Activists are heralding Massachusetts’ new climate law as a crucial next step in the state’s fight against environmental justice, saying it marks a key shift in the state’s approach to identifying which residents are the most burdened.
The expansive climate legislation, which was signed by Governor Charlie Baker last week, sets new targets on emissions and clean energy, but its emphasis on environmental justice, supporters say, could prove transformative.
The law establishes new provisions on how communities can have a meaningful voice in the way the state makes decisions about future infrastructure projects. The law makes clear that when approving new projects, the state must take into account how existing pollution levels have already impacted residents.
“For 20 years, we have been fighting for this to become law,” says María Belén Power of the local nonprofit GreenRoots and a member of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council that helped draft the legislation. with other grassroots organizers.
Between the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning around structural racism and a warming world, he adds, “it is very significant that Massachusetts finally has an environmental justice law.”
The law establishes a clear definition of a community burdened by pollution, also known as an environmental justice (EJ) community. Advocates say this new definition, which is based on criteria of race, income and English language proficiency, improves on previous, sometimes confusing or confusing parameters used to locate the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Previously, under 2002 state policy, an EJ community was defined as neighborhoods that met any of the following criteria: median annual household income equal to or less than 65% of the state median, 25% minority residents, 25% residents foreign born or 25% non-English speaking people.
Now, by simplifying the definition and codifying it into state law, Massachusetts can ensure that any incoming administration must meet these criteria, rather than setting its own. This is significant, say advocates like Belén Power, because previously, the state primarily pushed for environmental justice reform through executive orders.
“State agencies had the ability to say, we’ve already considered environmental justice and we think it aligns with policy,” says Sofia Owen, an attorney with the community organization Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is a traditional neighborhood. black in Boston. “But the new bill adds more clarity and establishes more tools for the community to use in order to participate in the way they should in these decisions.”
A clear definition of who is burdened by pollution paves the way for the state to quickly direct resources and take other actions to combat such pollution. And now, Belén Power and Owen say, those efforts will not be subject to change at the whims of a new administration.
“It was a definition that we spent a lot of time working on,” says Staci Rubin, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, who helped draft the legislation. “It was very important to us to have a very simple demographic definition that did not require a neighborhood to show that they had been harmed just to be identified as a JE population.”
The new bill would also raise barriers to fossil fuel projects in communities of color. In the past, when a state agency considered whether to approve a pipeline, highway, or other large project, it had a limited view of potential environmental burdens; it only assessed whether contamination from the next project would exceed state law and did not account for any background contamination.
Now, the pollution impacts of new projects will not be considered in isolation: under the new law, agencies will be required to analyze total or cumulative impacts (how any pollution from a proposed project adds to existing pollution) before granting permits to projects that potentially pose a threat to human health or the environment.
Take a controversial electrical substation project on the banks of Massachusetts’ Chelsea Creek, whose body of water runs through the Chelsea and East Boston neighborhoods. In massive tanks and open lots along the banks of the creek are storage tanks for 100% from Logan Airport jet fuel, up to 80% of the New England region’s heating oil, and road salt in hundreds of cities and towns. Around the boardwalk there are scrap metal facilities and parking lots for the airport. “If you look at things individually, it might not seem like a huge shock,” says Belén Power. “But if you look at the cumulative impact our communities have, it is quite significant.”
After years of fierce community opposition, the electrical substation He received its final approval last month.
The law looks to the future, so it cannot stop any facility that is already approved to operate. But “specifically directs agency resources and attention to environmental justice, which could result in funding for renewable energy, green space, better transportation, among other things,” says Owen.
The new legislation would also establish an environmental justice advisory council. According to Owen, the majority of the people on the council are supposed to be people from environmental justice communities, returning decision-making power to historically underserved communities.
“You are really creating a specific voice for the people affected first and worst,” he says.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism