We must address climate justice, not just climate change

All over the Commonwealth and the nation, we see the signs of a majority-white population awakening to the hard fact of racism. Up and down the South Shore where I live, one only has to go outside to see the words “Black Lives Matter” printed in bold type, chalked on sidewalks and stone walls, painted on fences and handmade wooden plaques. There are bumper stickers and t-shirts and magnets and mugs. It’s time for change.

Image: Graphic includes quote from Naomi Klein’s work, On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal, which reads, “We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there..”

With COVID-19 upon us, bringing healthcare disparities into stark relief, we are also forced to recognize that the areas most affected by the pandemic are not only communities of color, but deeply polluted areas as well. As Attorney General Maura Healey noted in her May report,

In communities of color across the United States, the painful legacy of environmental injustice and unequal access to healthcare are lethally compounding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. … In Massachusetts—ranked fourth nationally in the total number of COVID-19 cases and third in total deaths—the cities and towns hit hardest are those that are home to communities of color, including African-American and Latinx residents. These communities have long been among the poorest and most polluted in Massachusetts, with higher than average rates of asthma-related hospitalizations, particularly among children. They are also most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In Mass, we are especially keen to work to mitigate climate change. Many of our communities have adopted at least some Green practices, and alternative energy solutions are quite popular. When presented with environmental actions at the ballot or in town meeting, Mass voters tend to support them. Our elected officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, regularly speak out about environmental issues, but we have yet to codify our Environmental Justice policy, which leaves the door open for things like the Spectra-Enbridge fracked gas compressor station to be built in densely populated neighborhoods and threaten the lives of those who live there. 

The compressor station being built in North Weymouth is an environmental injustice wrought entirely by modern racism, classism, and indifference to the impacts on the health and wellness of the human beings who live in the area. Many of those who will suffer most are already suffering the ill effects of pollution. The compressor station might blow up, but never mind that, because the chances are slim. What will most definitely happen is that toxic chemicals will be released into heavily polluted air in an area where residents already suffer higher than average levels of asthma, COPD, heart disease, and cancer. And early research by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health already shows that just “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”

In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order to address inequity in environmental protection at the Federal level. This order has worked well in some ways. Residents of an area where fish and wildlife are frequently consumed are usually notified of contamination with signage, and there have been efforts across the country to increase green space, parks, and recreation in urban environments.

Where the order has failed is in protecting Environmental Justice areas from increases in pollution. In Mass, we have an Environmental Justice policy of our own, most recently updated as of 2017, but right now, a powerful fracked gas compressor station is being built in North Weymouth, on a site which will endanger the families and children who live in the area, and exacerbate existing problems in in the Environmental Justice communities right across the bridge, disproportionately affecting the people of color, low income families, and the elderly people who are already affected by existing levels of pollution in the area. 

The compressor station currently being built cannot come online until the air quality permit, vacated this spring by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, is granted again. Unfortunately, the permit was denied on the grounds that the DEP had failed to follow its own procedures in granting the permitThe Court rejected claims by petitioners that the pre-existing levels of pollution in the area should be considered in the permitting process, writing that because the text of the applicable regulation, 310 Mass. Code Regs. §§ 7.01(1)  is “ambiguous,” the DEP’s “reasonable interpretation,” which allows them to grant air quality permits without considering background levels of pollution, is acceptable. In other words, Massachusetts is only looking at how much pollution the compressor station is emitting, and not how much total pollution the residents of the Fore River Basin are being forced to breathe in.

Our state’s Environmental Justice policy is strong, but it lacks the power of law. House bill H4264, An Act relative to Environmental Justice in the Commonwealth, would codify the existing policy and take stronger steps toward ensuring that overburdened communities are protected from new sources of pollution, like the Spectra-Enbridge fracked gas compressor station. The Act expands the requirements for environmental review to include public health impacts and long-term effects when deciding whether to allow polluting projects, ensures that project promoters translate documents into languages spoken in the area, and requires public meetings to be held in accessible locations at convenient times. At the end of 2019, the bill was reported out of the Environmental Committee to Ways and Means, with a recommendation that it should pass. 

Six days ago, the House passed the 2050 Roadmap Bill (Published as amended, H4933), with an amendment (Amendment 52 attached to the House version of the Roadmap, H.4912) attached which includes some of the provisions of the full Environmental Justice Bill, H.4264. The bill now goes to the State Senate. For all our sakes, it is more critical now than ever that we make climate justice a priority, and pass this legislation with these environmental justice provisions intact. 

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