In East Boston, 'mitigation' for a controversial project may cost residents

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The location of the electrical substation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa)
The location of the electrical substation in East Boston. (Jesse Costa)

For years, many in the East Boston community have pleaded with state officials to stop the utility Eversource from building an electrical substation on the banks of Chelsea Creek.

They’ve said it was dangerous and inappropriate to put this high voltage infrastructure across the street from a popular playground and so close to millions of gallons of jet fuel. They’ve pointed to sea-level rise projections and the risk of the facility flooding. They’ve said it's an "environmental injustice” to build this project in a largely working class and immigrant community that already lacks green space. And they’re outraged it’s going on a parcel of land the city of Boston had previously indicated would become a park.

The state body in charge of reviewing energy projects acknowledged some of these concerns. And when it approved the substation in February 2021, it did so with an unusual caveat.

It directed Eversource to negotiate a “community benefits agreement” with local groups. The idea was to come up with something that would help mitigate the negative effects of the substation, or at least compensate the community for the added burden.

But as it turns out, the community may end up helping to pay for that mitigation.

Debra Cave began every meeting she had with Eversource the same way: “We do not want a substation in East Boston.”

"However," she would add, “if this thing is going to be imposed on us, then we want to make sure that we get something in return.”

Cave laughed a little as she recounted her preamble; the utility representatives probably just rolled their eyes, she joked.

But making that point was important to her. Having lived in East Boston for 70 years, she said the community has been forced to bear an unfair share of industrial activity and environmental pollution.

She remembers watching from the porch of her family's third-floor apartment as workers demolished Wood Island Park in 1967 to make room for a new airport runway. All the trees, walking paths and public amenities — gone. Ever since, she and her neighbors have endured extra sound and air pollution because of Logan Airport and the industry that's sprung up to support it

East Boston resident Debra Cave stands by the climbing frames at American Legion Playground. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
East Boston resident Debra Cave stands by a climbing structure at American Legion Playground. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In 2014, Eversource proposed building an electrical substation in East Boston. And when Cave learned the full extent of the utility's plans to place the large facility down the street from her house, it felt like “just one more thing in my lifetime that I'm seeing imposed on this community,” she said.

The substation will convert high voltage electricity to a lower voltage that can be used in homes and businesses. Substations are a ubiquitous feature of our energy landscape, but this one in East Boston has become particularly controversial because many see it as part of a pattern of injustice. Instead of a new park or soccer field, the community says it’s getting another piece of infrastructure — one that Eversource concedes would largely support the airport.

Cave said she was “heartbroken” and “angry” when the Energy Facilities Siting Board, the state body in charge of reviewing energy projects, unanimously approved the project two years ago. But as the head of the Eagle Hill Civic Association, she agreed to help negotiate the community benefits agreement with Eversource.

“I didn’t feel good participating, and yet I felt like I had to,” she said. “To live in East Boston is to make a commitment to fighting for the neighborhood.”

Over the summer of 2021, Cave and Michael Triant, executive director of the Salesian Boys and Girls Club, met with Eversource representatives to discuss what the company would do for the community.

In the end, they settled on a $1.4 million benefits package. It included $175,000 for improvements at the park across the street from the substation; $600,000 for fixing-up the nearby Urban Wild; $400,000 for planting trees; and $250,000 for the Boys and Girls Club to use on new energy efficient appliances and HVAC system upgrades.

Cave said that, while they talked about a lot of logistics during these negotiations, who would pay for the benefits never came up.

“I just thought it was going to come from Eversource,” she said.

That’s not how Eversource saw it.

Last June, advocates asked Eversource during a state hearing who would pay for the community benefits agreement. The company responded in a written statement: “Ratepayers.”

That means Debra Cave, her neighbors, and anyone in Massachusetts who pays an electricity bill to Eversource.

“It really sickens me. It just makes me — it's really disheartening. That's the way I'll sum it up,” Cave said.

It’s also seemingly in contradiction to the 11-page benefits agreement signed by Eversource and the community groups. That document states several times that “the Parties intend that the funds for these measures will come from the Company.”

But after WBUR began asking questions about the community benefits agreement, or CBA — Eversource started to give a new answer.

“It is the company's position that the CBA would be a recoverable cost down the road,” said Eversource spokesman Chris McKinnon. “However, we haven't decided if and how we would go about doing that.”

Further, the company could also make money off of rehabbing the park and upgrading the playground and Boys and Girls Club.

When utilities physically build things like poles, wires and substations, they can get a rate of return, or profit, on those capital expenditures. Eversource’s McKinnon said it’s “premature” to discuss whether the company will include the $1.4 million benefits agreement in the overall cost of the project. But he added that the option is on the table.

“This is not mitigation,” said John Walkey, an East Boston resident and director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at GreenRoots, the environmental nonprofit that’s led the fight against the substation.

Mitigation involves reducing the damage of a project or providing some sort of payment or offset, he said. "And this ameliorates nothing because we're paying for it."

Walkey said the whole idea of the benefits agreement is “insulting” — just one more instance of the state and a utility giving lip service to environmental justice.

“It's basically the lipstick on the pig,” he said.

Construction under way at the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Construction under way at the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It’s also a very unusual situation. Community benefits agreements are common in the private sector — a real estate developer might build a dog park or agree to rebuild an intersection in exchange for support from neighbors. But this appears to be the first time the state energy siting board told a utility to work out a deal with the community, so there is no precedent about who should pay.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the siting board, declined to make anyone available for an interview. But when asked if board members intended for Eversource to fund the community benefits with company money, a spokeswoman said that the siting board has no authority over Eversource’s “cost recovery.”

It all comes down to what the Department of Public Utilities decides it will allow, said Ann Berwick, who led the department and served on the Energy Facilities Siting Board under Gov. Deval Patrick.

“There's no statute that says you can or cannot charge ratepayers for the costs of a community benefit agreement,” she said.

Berwick isn’t surprised that Eversource would want to recoup the expense from ratepayers, but “it’s not up to Eversource,” she explained. “What's illegal in a rate case is what the [Department of Public Utilities] says is illegal.”

Later this decade, after the substation is up and running, Eversource will go before the department for a “rate case.”

That's when a utility lays out the receipts for everything it’s spent since its last review and proposes how it wants to recover those costs. It lumps its expenses into different categories: things it hopes to recoup from ratepayers, things it hopes to recoup with a profit and things the company itself will pay for.

Close by the American Legion playground and a fuel depot, a digger works on the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Close by the American Legion playground and a fuel depot, a digger works on the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

There are certain things utilities are not supposed to ask ratepayers to pay for: Campaign contributions, fines or penalties, charitable donations and certain lobbying or advertising expenses. That doesn’t mean they don’t try to do it, said David Pomerantz, executive director of the watchdog group, the Energy and Policy Institute.

The Attorney General and other interest groups are always part of a rate case, and one of their jobs is to inspect a utility’s plan and push back when necessary.

But some substation opponents worry that something small — like a community benefits agreement — will get lost in the shuffle.

Rate cases involve billions of dollars of expenses, said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, which is representing GreenRoots in its legal challenges against the substation. “It's very difficult to go through every piece of paper and scrutinize every single receipt.”

The current cost of the East Boston substation is estimated to be $106 million. Adding $1.4 million to the price tag for park improvements, trees and upgrades to the Boys and Girls Club is the sort of extra charge people are unlikely to notice on their monthly utility bills.

But Pomerantz of the Energy and Policy Institute said it risks setting a bad precedent.

“Every utility would love to be able to spend even more money to try to assuage concerns or silence critics or buy community support. If they had license to spend ratepayer money on that — why not spend $100 million?” he said.

It's not just a "what if" for people like Pomerantz. As Massachusetts works to cut carbon emissions, it’s going to need to build a lot more electrical infrastructure. He said he’d worry about creating a pattern where utilities and the state ignore community concerns and then throw ratepayer dollars at the problem.

GreenRoots' Director of Waterfront and Climate Justice Initiatives John Walkey, stands by the fence at the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
GreenRoots' Director of Waterfront and Climate Justice Initiatives John Walkey, stands by the fence at the site of the East Boston electrical substation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a recent cold morning, John Walkey of GreenRoots sat in a car across the street from the spot where the substation is being built and took a deep breath.

Walkey and his neighbors likely won't know for years who will pay for the benefits. But if there’s one thing he’s learned from his eight-year long “saga” to try to stop the facility, it’s that the state’s process for reviewing energy projects is flawed. He said it gives deference to utilities and power companies while shutting out community voices.

“The entire system needs to be overhauled because it is not doing what it needs to do for the people,” he said.

He and others in the community are pushing for legislation that would reform the Energy Facilities Siting Board. They want the board’s decisions to give more weight to climate change, public health and environmental justice. They want meaningful community engagement, more accessible public meetings and extra scrutiny on projects being proposed in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Our moment in this climate crisis requires us to have a different system,” Walkey said, glancing over at the substation site. “It's what gives me the oomph to say that even if this thing gets built, the fight is definitely not over.”

This segment aired on February 13, 2023.


Headshot of Miriam Wasser

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



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