The historic climate law that Governor Charlie Baker signed last March included provisions meant to make sure low-income communities and people of color don’t suffer disproportionate environmental harm from new polluting projects.
It required Baker’s administration to appoint a special council to weigh in on which communities should have certain environmental protections, on the grounds that they’re already overburdened by pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure.
But nearly a year later, Baker hasn’t appointed anyone to the council yet. And the body’s first report is due in July.
“Laws are just laws,” said María Belén Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots. “If they’re not implemented, they don’t mean anything.”
The Baker administration declined to comment on why it hasn’t named any members yet.
According to an Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs official, the state is working to finalize the appointment process. They also said their agency is preparing analysis materials on behalf of the Environmental Justice Advisory Council to help enable it to meet its deadline.
One of the council’s main roles is to write regular assessments on whether the state’s definition of an “environmental justice community” — based on race, income, and level of English language proficiency — should be updated to ensure it captures those communities most affected by pollution. Its first report is due July 31.
The definition is important because new infrastructure proposals in environmental justice communities get extra scrutiny. Before approving any new energy infrastructure or other polluting projects near them, agencies have to conduct an environmental impact analysis, accounting for not only new emissions the proposed development would create but also the cumulative impacts of existing local pollution. Environmental justice communities are also eligible for grants and other benefits.
This wasn’t the first Massachusetts policy to call for an environmental justice advisory council. A nonbinding 2014 executive order tried to create one, but it was never appointed.
In 2019, local grassroots groups came together under the banner of the “Environmental Justice Table” to call for environmental justice policies, including an advisory council. The roadmap bill should require that one be created because it’s legally binding.
Officials have told organizers that they’re working on the appointments but haven’t specified a timeline. Sofia Owen, staff attorney at Alternatives for Community and Environment, said that sends a troubling message.
“This really is a life-and-death issue,” she said.
In November, the Environmental Justice Table sent state officials a list of recommended appointees. In response, officials said many of their suggestions were already being considered.
“We keep hearing positive things,” Power said. “We just haven’t really seen the action.”
Activists are concerned that if the council isn’t appointed soon, they won’t be able to properly review the state’s environmental justice definition to write a full report by July 31.
Another responsibility of the council is to advise state agencies on environmental justice concerns in permitting. Until it’s up and running, advocates said, the state has no official body to provide that expertise.
Eversource’s East Boston Substation, for example, is slated to be built in an area already plagued by pollution from Logan International Airport. Last month, the Department of Environmental Protection approved a waterfront license for the project. Climate groups have appealed the decision, but no state panel with environmental justice expertise has been available to weigh in.
”The advisory council could have ... made a difference,” said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation.
This story has been updated to include additional information from the Baker administration about its efforts to launch the council.