Advocates Celebrate As Legislature Gets One Step Closer To Passing Environmental Justice Law

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Brianna O'Brien, from Hampton Falls, N.H. protests at the Climate Strike in City Hall Plaza. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Brianna O'Brien, from Hampton Falls, N.H., protests at the Climate Strike in City Hall Plaza. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

María Belén Power, of the local nonprofit GreenRoots, was supposed to have a “date night” with her husband Friday evening, but says she couldn’t stop checking her phone for updates on floor proceedings at the State House. The Massachusetts House of Representatives was working its way through more than 100 amendments attached to a sweeping climate bill known colloquially as the 2050 Roadmap.

“I was watching the session for hours and hours and hours before [that] — just waiting and waiting and waiting,” she says. Waiting, that is, for the legislators to take up an amendment proposed by East Boston Rep. Adrian Madaro that would codify a number of environmental justice (EJ) definitions and processes into Massachusetts law for the first time in the state’s history. (The text of the amendment was previously filed as a stand-alone bill, but when it became clear that it wouldn’t make it out of committee for a vote, Madaro proposed it as an amendment to the 2050 Roadmap bill, which had a greater chance of passing.)

Belén Power says she kept her phone by her side during dinner, and as soon as she got word that the amendment was up for debate, apologized to her husband and turned her full attention to the proceedings.

First up was Rep. Madaro, who gave a seven-and-a-half minute speech about the importance of environment justice that ended in applause from his fellow lawmakers.

“Our planet is now facing a reckoning for decades of burning fossil fuels, but the burden of these fumes has been borne by EJ communities from the beginning,” he said, noting that East Boston — home to Logan Airport, major highways and huge tanks of jet fuel and heating oil — has a disproportionately high rate of childhood asthma and recently experienced one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the state.

“For too long we have let low-income communities and communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of pollutants and environmental hazards, while excluding them from the decision-making process affecting their neighborhoods,” Madaro said. “And the provisions in this amendment are the first step in a long overdue process to ensure environmental equity and finally recognize environmental justice and EJ communities into state law.”

Watching on her phone, Belén Power — who helped craft the language used in the environmental justice amendment — says she was overwhelmed with emotion.

“It just felt so powerful and so exciting that this was happening,” she says. “This fight's been going on for 20 years.”

Mass. was one of the first states to recognize environmental justice and develop policies, but so far, every action has been through executive order. Advocates like Belén Power would rather have the formula for determining what constitutes an environmental justice community, and the subsequent list of corrective actions, written into state law and not subject to change with every new administration.

Still, that’s easier said than done. Advocates and their legislative allies have filed versions of an EJ bill during past legislative sessions, but it never made it out of committee.

This year, however, felt different, Belén Power says. Between the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning about structural racism and the fact that many of the worst effects of climate change — like extreme heat waves — are apparent in everyday life, “the moment could not be more urgent,” she says.

Andrea Nyamekye, of the nonprofit Neighbor To Neighbor, agrees. “If there was ever a time to pass EJ, it's now,” she says. “EJ is not just about the environment, but is also a public health issue. [And] the same communities right now dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19 [are the same communities that] have been sacrifice zones for polluting facilities and environmental degradation.”

Madaro’s amendment, in addition to defining an environmental justice community based on new race, income, and language-proficiency criteria, would give community members a much more meaningful role in the decision-making process about new projects. It also, importantly, says that any future environmental impact statement must take into account something called cumulative impact.

Right now, when a state agency like the Department of Public Utilities or the Energy Facilities Siting Board weighs whether to approve a pipeline, highway or other big project, it looks at whether the pollution from that specific project would exceed state law, but it doesn’t necessarily take into account any background pollution. (This has been a big point of contention in the ongoing fight over the Weymouth Natural Gas Compressor Station.)

“You have to look at the whole picture and the cumulative impact that EJ populations have been bearing the brunt of,” Belén Power says. “It makes a big difference to look at the entire picture and all of the burdens that communities like Chelsea, East Boston, Brockton and so many others are already carrying.”

If this provision becomes state law, it could have a really big impact on where big infrastructure and energy projects can be sited, she says.

GreenRoots Associate Executive Director María Belén Power. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
GreenRoots Associate Executive Director María Belén Power. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

So what are the chances it does become law? Nyamekye says she’s optimistic, but also trying to remain realistic — “passing this bill was a first step, but there is still a ways to go,” she says.

After passing the house Friday night, the 2050 Roadmap bill goes to a conference committee where it will be reconciled with other climate legislation from the Senate. (It’s unclear when this will happen and when a bill might get to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.)

And while the Senate includes many “EJ allies,” advocates worry that a few lawmakers could kill it. In the past, similar EJ legislation was withdrawn after some lawmakers questioned the constitutionality of including race in the definition. (The Conservation Law Foundation issued a legal brief earlier this year saying that the measure was constitutional, and advocates like Nyamekye and Belén Power have tried to dispel arguments to the contrary.)

“The Massachusetts’ Constitution states that 'the people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment,’” Madaro said on the floor of the State House Friday night.

“Adoption of this amendment brings us one step closer to fulfilling [that] promise.”

This segment aired on August 3, 2020.


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Miriam Wasser Senior Reporter, Climate and Environment
Miriam Wasser is a reporter with WBUR's climate and environment team.



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