Massachusetts’ environmental justice advisory council met for the first time on Thursday — just three days before state law says the group is due to file its first report.
The historic climate law that Governor Charlie Baker signed last March included a requirement for his administration to appoint a special council focused on environmental justice, meant to help ensure low-income communities and people of color don’t suffer disproportionate environmental harm.
Advocates say the council can play an essential role in crafting state environmental plans, giving communities a way to voice their views on how new policies and infrastructure could affect their neighborhoods.
The legislation said the council should produce recommendations by July 31 on the official definition of an environmental justice population — communities disproportionately impacted by environmental issues like pollution and extreme weather — to determine which populations should have certain environmental protections.
In February, nearly a year after Baker signed the climate law, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said the council was still finalizing appointments to the body.
At their first-ever meeting this week, council members were sworn in. The nine members hail from a variety of fields, including community organizations, indigenous tribes, social justice nonprofits, academia, and utility companies.
Marcos Luna, a professor of geography at Salem State University and an environmental justice advocate, said he received confirmation of his appointment by email in March. He said officials didn’t discuss the delay in appointing representatives at the meeting.
“People were all very eager to be involved and to get going,” said Luna.
The Baker administration was not immediately available for comment.
The inclusion of industry representatives, including a representative from National Grid, has caused some to raise their eyebrows. Luna said he understands the concern.
“They’re a huge player in a state, so I can imagine that they have a stake in the conversation, but you could argue that those kinds of voices already are overrepresented in government,” he said. “I’m of two minds on this, but I think it will be interesting is to see how the conversation plays out.”
The council’s creation has been years in the making, said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, who is not a councilmember, but attended Thursday’s meeting and has been urging the state to council for years. Even before the 2021 climate bill became law, former Governor Deval Patrick signed a nonbinding executive order in 2014 calling for the formation of such a body.
“The fact that [the meeting] happened is an achievement because we’ve been advocating for it for so long,” said Rubin.
The council can include up to 15 members under state law, meaning the next administration can choose to add up to six members once Baker leaves office. Rubin said she hopes if more members are added, they are familiar with the organizing and legislation that led to the council’s creation, as well as the histories of environmental injustice in the state.
“It would be ideal if there are some more members added who have been working on this legislation for years,” she said.
In the assessment due Sunday, the council is meant to weigh in 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. At Thursday’s meeting, state officials and councilmembers acknowledged that complying with that deadline would be impossible.
The body will aim to complete the assessment by the end of 2022, said Luna.
“My opinion was, that’s probably still a little ambitious,” he added.
Rubin said the delay could only have been avoided “if the council was convened months and months ago.”
“They’re not going to meet the deadline, and that’s okay, because we want them to engage residents of these day populations before they make any decisions,” she said. “We want them to do it right.”