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Governor Patrick signs order on environmental justice

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Governor Patrick signs order on environmental justice
Gov. Deval Patrick chats with Chelsea Collaborative Executive Director Gladys Vega after the announcement of his Executive Order on Environmental Justice. (Photo: Photo courtesy of ACE)

Governor Deval Patrick has signed an Executive Order on Environmental Justice that enhances environmental protections and benefits for communities of color and low-income or limited-English-proficiency communities, groups that bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and toxins.

Patrick addressed a jubilant crowd of environmental and social justice advocates gathered to witness the signing of the order Nov. 25 at the headquarters of the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit organization working for social, economic and environmental health in Chelsea.

“This is not a geographic issue, but a demographic issue,” Patrick said. “There are a handful of people who know exactly how to get their voice heard and their phone call returned by the governor. But the interest of everybody else depends on whether the governor sees you, hears you, is listening to you. That’s what this executive order is about — making sure everybody is heard and thought about, and that we find a solution that works for everyone.”

Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Maeve Bartlett briefly covered the main points of the new law.

A new Governor’s Advisory Council, made up of community and advocacy groups as well as state agency representatives, will advise the governor and the EEA secretary on environmental justice issues, she said. Each state agency must appoint an Environmental Justice Coordinator in the next 30 days. Agencies have six months to create a strategy for including environmental justice considerations whenever they are involved with development projects, industrial facilities and park and open space investments.

“So this will move forward not in an ad hoc way, but consistently and effectively,” Bartlett said. “We want to take the EEA environmental justice policy and make it statewide, and put [all state agencies] on notice that these are important and vital issues.”

Stark racial disparities in environmental hazard exposure can be seen in Massachusetts, according to Daniel Faber, a Northeastern University sociology professor and director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative who attended the signing event. Faber and his group have analyzed environmental justice data.

“Statewide, the cumulative environmental burden in communities of color is 24 times greater than what it is in predominantly white communities,” he told the Banner. A 2005 study co-authored by Faber states, “Without question, it would appear that communities of color are greatly overburdened in comparison with white communities and are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards of almost every kind.”

The executive order prioritizes attention and resources toward “environmental justice communities” containing resident groups that have historically been more vulnerable to disproportionate siting of polluting industries or waste. The EJ community designation is given to census block groups that meet any or all of several conditions: median income at or below 65 percent of the statewide median, 25 percent or more residents minority, foreign born or lacking English language proficiency. Census block groups typically hold 500 to 2,500 people and can vary widely in area.

EJ communities have been identified all over Massachusetts, but are more prevalent in densely populated areas. In Chelsea, Everett and Lawrence, 100 percent of the population is part of an EJ community. In the city of Boston, many neighborhoods — containing 74 percent of the city’s residents — meet EJ community conditions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, less than 20 percent of residents in Arlington and less than 10 percent in Billerica and Beverly are in EJ communities.

The Nov. 25 signing marked the culmination of a five-year push by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Alliance, a coalition of some 20 environmental, social justice and grassroots groups from across the Commonwealth formed in 2009 and coordinated by the Roxbury-based Alternatives for Community & Environment.

“At ACE, we have a radical idea that everyone has the right to a healthy and safe environment, and that they should be decision-makers in issues that impact their communities,” said ACE Executive Director Kalila Barnett in her turn at the podium. “We believe in the intelligence and analysis of those directly affected by environmental injustice to come up with solutions to create a better future for all of us.”

ACE was founded in 1993, and works from its Dudley Square headquarters to address and prevent environmental threats affecting communities of color. Besides shepherding the new executive order to fruition, ACE and its coalitions have chalked up a number of accomplishments in Roxbury and statewide, including forcing the cleanup of asbestos- and lead-laden dirt in Roxbury, persuading the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection to install an air monitoring system in Dudley Square and helping the city of Chelsea successfully oppose a diesel power plant planned for a site next to an elementary school.

The executive order also contains procedural requirements such as an improved outreach process to engage the most vulnerable communities. For instance, agency public participation plans must include multi-lingual outreach and meeting schedules that meet local residents’ needs.

“This addresses the nuts-and-bolts of making sure that when you’re having a public meeting, everyone knows what’s going on,” said Sue Harden, a volunteer member of the Environmental Justice Alliance who was involved in meetings on the crafting of the executive order. As an example, she said, “We had a meeting in Revere City Hall where we were promised translators, but no translators were there. That may seem like a small thing, but it’s not.”

The implementation deadlines extend into spring, but there was no mention at the event of whether Governor-elect Charlie Baker or his EEA secretary pick, Matthew Beaton, had voiced support of the executive order. Barnett said ACE is preparing to reach out to the new administration to offer support and collaboration around implementation. In an e-mail, a Baker spokesperson was non-committal, indicating that Baker “cares deeply about environmental justice [and] preserving open space, and will determine which policies will or will not keep Massachusetts a leader in environmental reform once in office.”

At the signing event, there was no shortage of love and appreciation for Patrick, who is entering the final weeks of his eight-year administration. An effusive introduction from Barnett and grateful words from the advocates who pushed for and crafted the new law drew enthusiastic applause. After the formal signing, dozens of people surged forward to try to be photographed with the governor.

Earlier, when he stepped to the podium, Patrick had paused to urge Chelsea Collaborative members and ACE staff to enter the room instead of observing from outside the door.

“Can I ask everyone from the hall to come in? Everybody in, come in,” he said, coaxing a self-conscious but very pleased line of people to stand next to the podium.

“This is the point — everybody gets to have a place at the table,” he said.

The audience roared its approval.