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Environmental Groups Sue EPA Over Alleged Civil Rights Violations In East Boston And Chelsea

Residents of East Boston and Chelsea protest near the site of the proposed electrical substation in December. (Courtesy GreenRoots)
Residents of East Boston and Chelsea protest near the site of the proposed electrical substation in December. (Courtesy GreenRoots)

The environmental nonprofit GreenRoots, the Conservation Law Foundation and Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allegedly violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it declined to investigate language access concerns during the on-going siting process of a controversial electrical substation in East Boston.

“This lawsuit represents a failure of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to uphold the Civil Rights of environmental justice communities,” says GreenRoots Executive Director Roseann Bongiovanni. “No one should have to fight simply to access information and participate in decision making that affects one's health and environment. Yet, Black, Brown and Immigrant communities have proven that time and time again, they are excluded from these ‘public’ processes.”

The lawsuit comes less than a year after the groups first filed a complaint against the EPA and asked it to look into potential discriminatory practices in the Department of Public Utilities and the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), the two state bodies charged with permitting the project.

In late June, the EPA declined to investigate, claiming it didn’t have jurisdiction over the state bodies because it doesn’t directly give them money — an argument Conservation Law Foundation attorney Amy Laura Cahn calls an “unlawfully narrow interpretation of the law.” Because the parent agency of the two bodies, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, receives “significant federal funding” from the EPA, she says, “everything under its umbrella must comply with the law.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The empty lot where Eversource plans to build an electrical substation in East Boston. The site is near the banks of Chelsea Creek and the new police station, and across the street from a popular playground and park.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The empty lot where Eversource plans to build an electrical substation in East Boston. The site is near the banks of Chelsea Creek and the new police station, and across the street from a popular playground and park.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

If built, the East Boston substation will convert high voltage electricity from nearby power stations to a lower voltage for residential distribution. There’s ongoing debate about whether the project is actually necessary, though opponents are also concerned about putting electrical infrastructure in a densely populated and flood-prone area near Chelsea Creek.

Since Eversource first proposed the project in 2014, GreenRoots, CLF and other community groups say there have only been a handful of opportunities for local residents to ask questions and give feedback on the project. Early in the process, the state did not provide any translation services during public hearings despite the fact that East Boston and Chelsea are state-designated environmental justice communities where a large percentage of residents speak Spanish as their first language. The EFSB has started providing real-time translation services, but many community members continue to complain that it’s too little too late.

“State energy officials have persistently failed to provide language access for people with limited english proficiency in East Boston and Chelsea throughout the six years of EFSB proceedings on the Eversource substation project,” Cahn says. “We’re asking [the court] to halt the substation proceedings and re-start that entire process so that people with limited English proficiency get to actually have a voice in [the matter] that matches the voice every English-speaking participant was able to have.”

(Courtesy of GreenRoots)
(Courtesy of GreenRoots)

The Energy Facilities Siting Board has repeatedly dismissed requests to restart the siting proceedings, a move that would require the board to reexamine whether there’s a legitimate need for the project. Last month, 16 federal, state and local elected officials in Massachusetts demanded it do so, and that it fully and fairly involve the community in the process.

“The siting of any new significant energy project requires the full and informed input of the surrounding public, [especially] as this planned industrial infrastructure is in an already disproportionately overburdened Environmental Justice community,” the 16 signatories wrote. “Participation in the approval process must not be in name only.”

The EFSB will meet virtually on Feb. 1 and 2 to discuss the project and likely give it the final up or down vote.

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Miriam Wasser Twitter Reporter, EarthWhile
Miriam Wasser is a reporter for WBUR's environmental vertical.

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