The local non-profit GreenRoots and the Conservation Law Foundation have sent a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over translation issues in the ongoing debate over a proposed electrical substation in East Boston.
The complaint alleges that the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board — the state agency that grants permits for large energy and utility projects — violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by failing to provide adequate translation for residents with "limited English proficiency." And as a result, non-English speaking residents — who make up a substantial portion of East Boston and Chelsea — were unable to meaningfully participate in the public decision-making process.
“On multiple occasions, the Energy Facilities Siting Board has either outright refused to accommodate Spanish speakers, or has done so in such a negative manner that folks have essentially been shut out of the process for a project that's being proposed in their own neighborhood,” says Roseann Bongiovanni, Executive Director of GreenRoots. “So essentially community members who would like to make their voices heard on a project that will be situated — if passed — right in their environmental justice neighborhood ... have been excluded from a state process.”
“The Energy Facilities Siting Board greatly values the participation and information provided by public comment and strives to ensure that there is no barrier to such participation due to limited English language proficiency, and is reviewing the complaint filed with the EPA," EEA spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke wrote in an email. Her statement goes on to say that the EFSB is aware of "linguistic diversity" in the area, and that it has "numerous steps to provide meaningful language access for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking residents." (The EEA, along with the Department of Public Utilities, was also cited in the complaint.)
Electrical substations are critical pieces of energy infrastructure that convert high-voltage electricity to a lower voltage for use in homes and other buildings. According to the utility Eversource, which proposed the project, the station currently serving East Boston and Chelsea is at maximum capacity and another is needed to meet the area’s growing electricity demands.
Eversource first proposed building the East Boston substation in 2014. Since then, there have only been a handful of opportunities for local residents to ask questions and give feedback about the project, Bongiovanni says. And at most of these meetings, translation was lacking, she adds.
After the EFSB announced it would hold a meeting in Chelsea in November 2017 to get public feedback about its tentative decision to approve the project, GreenRoots sent the agency a letter saying it had many Spanish-speaking members who wanted to present public comment. As such, they wrote, we “expect the EFSB will provide materials in Spanish, as well as translation services at the hearing.”
During the November meeting, however, the onsite interpreter translated Spanish comments into English for the EFSB board members, but not the other way around. When Bongiovanni raised the issue with the EFSB, she says she was told that simultaneous translation would be “too disruptive.”
The complaint states that "Spanish-speaking residents were left with no way of understanding what was said during the two- and half-hour hearing, and no ability to understand and thus respond to or echo the testimony of others as an English-speaking resident might have done. When these residents were finally permitted to speak — following hours of English-only, complex, and technical testimony by parties, intervenors, and limited participants — they had no context or confidence to share their perspective, rendering the record essentially incomplete."
“Such conduct," it continues, "flies in the face of the spirit and letter of Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] and the EPA’s accompanying regulations."
GreenRoots and CLF write in their complaint that translation services are not only federal law, but also critical to the state’s decision-making process: “Not only is public engagement required, it is also the only source for certain relevant facts necessary for the Board to ensure that the record is complete.”
Many local residents are worried that the substation poses significant health and safety problems. Electrical substations have been known to catch fire, and Eversource is proposing to build this one across the street from a playground and densely populated neighborhood. The substation would also sit near the edge of Chelsea Creek in an area that floods during heavy storms, and which some scientists say will flood more often as climate change causes sea levels to rise.
While Eversource maintains that the project poses no significant risk to local residents, those who live near the site are skeptical. Many are also upset about the decision to site this project in an Environmental Justice community that’s already overburdened by industry and pollution.
“Between the jet fuel, the noise pollution, the air pollution from the airport, the salt mounds across the creek — this community has had the burden of so many environmental hazards and injustices for quite some time,” local resident Paul Kozak told WBUR last summer. “And instead of asking the public how we could best use the space, or how we envision that space being used, we’ve just had to sit back and accept [that] the substation from Eversource is going to be there.”
GreenRoots and CLF say in their complaint that failing to provide adequate translation robs residents of their chance to raise these concerns. And they've asked the EPA to investigate and "provide all other necessary and appropriate relief that justice may require.”
“We’re calling on the EPA to police the state; to say, ‘hey, you haven't followed the guidelines of the Civil Rights Act and you need to make good on that,’” Bongiovanni says. “And the relief we're asking for in the complaint is that the project be halted until this review is completed … and until the Energy Facilities Siting Board holds at least three meetings in East Boston in Spanish or with Spanish-language access.”
The EFSB published a tentative decision in favor of the project in February, but the actual vote was delayed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Eversource has started to prepare the ground for construction of the substation. The company has cleaned up contaminated soil and groundwater from the parcel of land, and is conducting ongoing soil and water testing.
A spokesman for the company says construction is slated to begin as soon as the EFSB takes a final vote.
This article was originally published on June 01, 2020.