Years before the COVID-19 pandemic, neighborhood activists in Chelsea had been sounding the alarm about the great environmental risks this small but dense community faced. And now a first-time candidate running for the Chelsea City Council wants to elevate those issues at the municipal level.
In a landmark 2005 environmental justice report, researchers found that Chelsea ranks third among the most overburdened communities statewide in terms of exposure to ecological hazards. Located along the banks of the Chelsea Creek are oil tanks that house all of the jet fuel used at Logan Airport and close to 80 percent of the heating fuel used in New England. A few years ago, Chelsea’s diesel exhaust level exceeded the US Environmental Protection Agency’s reference concentration by 20 percent. The uncovered and massive salt piles for all of Eastern Massachusetts’ icy roads have become a notorious Chelsea sight, causing traffic and pollution from the trucks carrying that salt in and out of the city.
These and other preexisting environmental factors have conspired to place a significant public health burden on Chelsea’s residents, who are primarily low-income and people of color. (For example, Chelsea has had one of the highest prevalences of asthma in the state.) It’s no accident that COVID-19 hit this tiny city of immigrants so hard that it became the early epicenter of the pandemic in the state.
But how to bring the power of elected office into the equation? Enter María Belén Power, who has been among those advocates ringing the alarm about Chelsea’s disproportionate environmental risks years before COVID-19. “Massachusetts has a very false sense of being progressive,” Power, an immigrant from Nicaragua, told me. “Because you’re so progressive on some issues, you will turn a blind eye on all these other issues,” like environmental justice, she said. It should not have taken COVID-19 for all of us to be awakened to Chelsea’s inequities.
Power, who oversees environmental justice campaigns at GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based nonprofit, became worried that things would go back to that pre-pandemic normal of blissful ignorance. So she decided to run for local office — for the District 8 seat in the Chelsea City Council — to keep highlighting the need to take action locally on policies that lie at the intersection of the environment and not just public health, but also housing and industrial and commercial development.
That’s what makes Power’s candidacy so promising. She brings a wealth of environmental justice experience to a municipal body that can have a huge impact. “Our community was hit first and worst by the pandemic,” she said. Two-thirds of residents are tenants, she said, so they are prone to displacement. If elected, Power would like to focus on tools that the city has to help homeowners and renters stay in their homes. As for environmental justice, “there are so many industries that I think we can hold more accountable,” she said. Power believes the city council has a lot of power that’s not being exercised to protect Chelsea’s residents “from the airport, from other polluting facilities.”
Along with other advocates, Power was involved in the years-long effort to codify the principles of environmental justice into state law, which was finally achieved in March. There is now a definition for what an environmental justice community is, and the law gives those communities a greater voice in approving local proposals. Power was also appointed to the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the only person from Massachusetts in the 26-member body. In that capacity, Power is working on President Biden’s Justice 40, an effort to deliver at least 40 percent of overall federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.
On the campaign trail, “someone asked me how the [White House Environmental Justice] advisory council is going to influence my work on the ground if elected,” Power said. “I said it’s actually the opposite. It’s our work on the ground that’s influencing what kind of policies at the federal level make more sense.”
It’s been one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic: the undue burdens heaped on poorer communities like Chelsea, including risks that go well beyond the threat of COVID-19. A certain kind of power and neglect made Chelsea vulnerable in the first place. And the only answer is a new wave of political representation.