Rishi Reddi, a long-time environmental lawyer — and fiction writer -- became the director of environmental justice at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in December 2019.
Having been on the job now for about eight months, Reddi sat down with WBUR to talk about how she views her job, how she plans to address some of the most pressing environmental justice (EJ) concerns in the state and why she thinks fiction writing makes her a better advocate. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define environmental justice?
Environmental justice is about addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental laws and regulations on certain segments of the society. In Massachusetts, we recognize those segments to be based on demographic factors like low income, racial minorities or folks who may not speak English proficiently. So we pay extra attention to those groups because there are some barriers to them obtaining the same level of environmental protection that others may have.
Consider climate change. Climate change is most certainly an environmental justice issue because it has a disproportionate impact on certain populations. When you look at climate vulnerability maps and environmental justice maps, there is a lot of overlap.
What is your job, and what authority do you have?
My job is to focus on enhancing environmental justice throughout the commonwealth. We've seen evidence about the way that certain neighborhoods and communities in our state are suffering both from the public health crisis — which has a background of environmental and public health issues — as well as from racial injustice issues that stem from redlining and historical practices of moving certain folks into certain areas that don’t have the same level of environmental protection as wealthier areas of the commonwealth have.
Part of my role is also to ask why are certain neighborhoods less protected than others? And what can we do so that we all get the environmental protection that we all deserve?
After having been a lawyer for many years advising clients on how to be more sensitive to issues around permitting and enforcement, it is very freeing to actually be able to work directly with stakeholder groups and citizens who are doing this work. So I'm very enthusiastic about the work, and I feel like we're in a good place heading into an even better direction.
What are your top priorities for the office? Are there any specific projects that you're thinking about?
Right now, we're looking at the state's environmental justice policy to make sure we're implementing all aspects of it. For example, I'm working on getting an environmental justice point of contact in every EEA agency so that stakeholders and members of the community know who to contact with questions and concerns.
We will also put together an EJ advisory council that will consist of stakeholders, activists and public health experts to advise both us and the entire executive branch in doing this work as we go forward.
Another priority is to make our language access plan more robust. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a very robust language access plan — but we intend to expand it so that all departments can communicate with folks all across Massachusetts whether or not English is their primary language.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about your job and the work you think we need to do as a state?
I’d say the pandemic has made me look at my work in a much more direct way. Because of the pandemic, we can really see the exact relationship between how our environment affects public health. We see how EJ neighborhoods are the same ones that were the hardest hit by the pandemic; you can’t escape that data.
I think the pandemic has in so many ways made all of us look more seriously at how our environmental actions affect public health. That tie has always been there, but I think many folks really only pay attention to environmental issues when it affects public health, especially the health of our children.
I’m curious to hear about your plans for rectifying some of the environmental injustices that already exist and have plagued Massachusetts residents for a long time.
I would very much like to open dialogue with folks who have been doing this work for a long time, because there is, I feel, a gap between government regulations or policy and what stakeholder groups have been telling us or asking us to do.
As a state, we have taken environmental justice seriously for a long time, but we've made some mistakes and we haven't always been perfect. So we are looking at it again in a more serious way and committing resources to it. And the very first step is to open those avenues of communication.
I'd like to ask you about two specific projects in Massachusetts. The first is the proposed electrical substation in East Boston, which is an environmental justice community. Many in the neighborhood felt like they weren't given a meaningful chance to participate in the process of choosing the site, and that their civil rights were violated because there were problems with translation for non-English speakers.
You weren’t in your position when this happened, but I’d like to hear what you have to say to those who oppose the project?
Some of the groups opposing the project did file a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's civil right’s office in June, but the office has since found that it doesn't have jurisdiction over two of the agencies involved — the Department of Public Utilities and the Energy Facilities Siting Board. We have yet to find out about how they're going to look at their jurisdiction over the executive office, so we're awaiting that decision.
But regardless, there were language issues there, and our work was not perfect. So we need to rectify some of those language issues. We need to be able to reach out effectively to the community and establish those ties.
I can’t say much more about it because it is an ongoing legal process, but I do want to say I'm very much aware of those complaints. I'm very much aware of the legitimacy and the merit of some of what's been said there and filed in the legal documents. And we're going to continue to work with that neighborhood and the leaders and the stakeholders there.
Editor's Note: On July 27, the EPA decided it also doesn't have jurisdiction over the executive office in this matter; however, the agency will conduct a compliance review “to ensure that [EEA] is fulfilling its obligations ... and the federal nondiscrimination statutes.” GreenRoots and the Conservation Law Foundation, who jointly filed the complaint, tell WBUR that they plan to challenge the EPA's decisions.
Next up is the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station. That's another project in an EJ community, and people who live nearby also feel their opinion was not considered in the siting process. Recently, a federal court vacated part of the project’s air quality permit, but the state hasn't told the company it needs to stop construction. I’m curious to hear what message you, as the state’s chief environmental officer, think that sends to the people of Weymouth and nearby communities?
So the court did vacate the air quality permit and send it back to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to issue another permit, but it didn't have to do with EJ issues. That said, I do know that it was a highly controversial case, and because of that, the governor stepped in and asked for a health impact assessment, which DEP and the Department of Public Health put a lot of time and effort into.
I don't know what the DEP permit will say in the future, and I don’t know whether the permit will put constraints on the project moving forward, but I’m hoping to be able to help in that situation. So I feel like this is all “to be continued," and we'll have to wait and see what happens.
I’m going to push back a little bit. I know the permit was not dismissed on EJ grounds, but I've heard from people who live in Weymouth and in their view, there is no environmental justice if the air quality permit was vacated and construction continues. So I would again ask you, what message do you think the ongoing construction sends to the community?
It is because of this case that I am encouraging our staff to look at how we deal with cumulative environmental impacts and background health issues. Our state laws right now do not allow us to assess those cumulative impacts, so we’re looking at how we can create regulatory and scientific language that could allow us to capture, assess and measure those things so they would appear on a future air quality permit.
But I get it. It is a difficult situation.
So why allow construction to continue if you recognize that the regulatory process is flawed? I know you don’t have the authority to shut down the project today, but if this is a concern to you, can the state do anything now to influence how DEP reassesses the air quality permit?
I don't know if we would be able to do that, but we are going to be looking at the issues that the project has raised.
Editor's Note: After the interview, WBUR followed up with a question about a pending environmental justice bill — H. 4264 — that would change state law so that environmental impact statements do consider existing pollution (cumulative impact) when assessing whether a project will be harmful. A spokesperson replied that the Baker administration does not comment on pending legislation.
OK, final question. Aside from your environmental justice and legal work, you’ve published two novels. How does your writing impact your professional life?
You know, I think these two parts of my life — the legal-environmental justice work and my fiction — have always supported and inspired one another. I feel like a lot of the skills that I use as a fiction writer — the way that we have to understand how a protagonist feels and how an antagonist feels — is good training being able to sit at a table and see multiple points of view while trying to negotiate something.
Also, my latest fiction definitely has a civil rights bent to it. I’ve written about the way that this country has dealt with race in the past and what it means to us right now.