Critics are blasting a proposal to build an electrical substation near a harbor estuary in East Boston, a community they say is already heavily burdened with environmental problems. Opponents of the project question whether the infrastructure is necessary and are concerned the site will flood.
“The location of this site, we know, will flood in the future, by the city’s own data — within the lifespan of the facility," said John Walkey, an East Boston resident who works for GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based environmental justice group. “And we’ll be on the hook for paying for it.”
Eversource, the utility behind the project, has stated the $66 million substation is needed to meet the growing demand for electricity in Eastie and has dismissed the flooding concerns.
“While electric demand in much of New England has not grown or remained flat, in the East Boston area, the need for electricity continues to grow,” Reid Lamberty, an Eversource spokesman, said in an e-mail Tuesday.
The project is scheduled to go before the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board on Wednesday, which could give the proposal a crucial approval at its meeting.
Walkey, of GreenRoots, questions whether the community needs the project. He said the only entity with the information required to document the need for the substation is Eversource, “who stands to profit from putting this in.”
“And their data, they won’t share with us,” he said. “They just tell us to take it on faith.”
He said Condor Street, which runs along the site, flooded last summer; he recalled helping push someone’s car out of the floodwaters after the vehicle’s engine got wet. He also said that during the “bombogenesis” of 2018, police shut the street down on multiple days because of flooding. Floods, he said, could shut down the substation or, worse, cause a fire or explosion, with ratepayers footing the bill for repairs.
The Energy Facilities Siting Board has the power to waive local zoning mandates, Walkey said. If that board gives the project the go-ahead, Walkey’s group plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court. A permit from the Department of Environmental Protection is also needed.
Under the proposal, the East Eagle Street substation would be connected to existing substations in Everett and Chelsea via transmission lines that run under Chelsea Creek, an estuary of the harbor. A knoll separates the site from the creek. Across the street are a playground, basketball courts, and a ball field. On the other side of the site, a little more than a football field away, sit large tanks containing jet fuel.
Sandra Aleman Nijjar, an East Boston mother of two who runs a soup kitchen and works in a restaurant, is among those unhappy with Eversource’s plans, which she says do nothing to mitigate flooding concerns. She also doesn’t like the site’s proximity to the creek, park, and jet fuel tanks.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea for a number of reasons,” she said Tuesday.
Lamberty, the Eversource spokesman, said the substation’s design exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards. He added that the structure would be built to withstand 100- and 500-year floodwaters and would take into account rising sea levels.
There are also gripes about the way the permitting process has played out, with project opponents saying that interpretation services at some of the public meetings have been inadequate and that outreach to East Boston’s Spanish-speaking community has been lacking. More than 55 percent of East Boston identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
Paula Garcia, a bilingual energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the project “very risky for the entire community” and said East Boston has not been given “proper consultation” regarding the project. She said that by the end of this century, the site will flood about 26 times each year.
“There is a safety risk because water plus electricity equals fire,” Garcia said.
Lamberty defended the utility’s community outreach, saying in an e-mail that multiple public hearings were held, with full translation services. He said that without a new substation by 2022, electric demand will exceed the capacity of an existing Chelsea substation that serves East Boston. It’s "already experiencing capacity constraints in meeting existing demand,” he said.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston and opposes the project, wrote in February to a state official that the permitting for the proposal has “inadequately addressed site alternatives, energy alternatives, the environmental justice obligations of the Commonwealth and the language access needs of my constituents.”
“East Boston is burdened by a significant prevalence of industrial facilities, partially as a consequence of hosting the Logan Airport, and residents suffer from air pollution, a lack of tree canopy and open space, and significant housing cost burdens,” Edwards wrote. “The use of an open parcel for energy distribution prevents alternative uses of the site.”
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.