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The East Boston substation is already under construction. So what do protesters hope to achieve now?

Six climate activists and community residents were arrested in East Boston last month after blocking the entrance to a highly controversial electrical substation construction site.Extinction Rebellion Boston

On the morning of Jan. 17, a group of environmental activists arrived at the construction site of a controversial electrical substation in East Boston’s Eagle Hill neighborhood.

The project had long been criticized since Eversource first proposed it in 2014, but after a lengthy and contentious state approval process, the utility company broke ground at the site this January.

Aiming to voice their disapproval, the group of protesters arrived at the construction site at 300 East Eagle St. minutes before 7 a.m. Before they had even finished unfurling their posters, six of them were arrested. Police accused them of blocking the entrance to the site, charging them for disorderly conduct and trespassing, and had dispatched an emergency deployment team, typically used to deal with serious emergencies.

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“I was shocked because I wasn’t expecting this,” said Sandra Nijjar, among those arrested. “The way they approached us was so aggressive, they were treating us like terrorists.”

Nijjar said the experience left her shaken and anxious, but that she wasn’t done trying to spread the protest’s message: The substation, in a community opponents say is already overburdened by pollution, must not be built.

Even as construction continues, protesters and environmental groups are still attempting to publicly pressure officials to halt or relocate the project, while also taking legal action to appeal Eversource’s license to build and cast a critical eye toward the site’s approval process.

“It can be a bit demoralizing at times, but we throw ourselves at it because the bigger we make this, the more weight we can bring to the debate in the Legislature about reforming the energy facility siting board,” said John Walkey, a member of climate advocacy organization GreenRoots who helped organize last month’s protest, along with Extinction Rebellion Boston, a local chapter of a global environmental group.

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Despite the protests, Eversource said there has been minor disruption to construction and “has not impacted the overall project schedule.”

“Throughout this robust public process, we have worked diligently to demonstrate that the project exceeds safety and environmental standards and have provided the community with access to information regarding this project,” Eversource spokesman Chris McKinnon said in a statement to the Globe.

Walkey, who lives in East Boston, said that GreenRoots has requested for Governor Maura Healey to meet with area residents to discuss their concerns.

In a statement, Healey said she was “disappointed in the process, timing and siting of the East Eagle Substation.”

“Our administration is reviewing the situation and listening to the concerns raised by the community,” Healey said. “We are committed to reforming the siting approval process and working with communities and stakeholders to ensure that environmental justice communities are no longer disproportionately burdened by these facilities.”

In its 2014 proposal for the substation, which would convert high-voltage electricity from transmission lines to a lower voltage to distribute it to households, Eversource stated that the facility was necessary to meet the growing demand for electricity in eastern Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board first approved the project in December 2017 and reapproved it in February 2021, also requiring the company to enter good-faith negotiations with neighborhood representatives.

But Eversource still lacked 14 state and local environmental permits necessary for the project to start construction, and asked the siting board to allow it to bypass them, arguing some were “unduly delayed and unreasonably conditioned.” In November 2022, the board agreed, granting Eversource a special certificate and clearing the way for a groundbreaking.

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However, local advocates have disputed the project since its proposal, arguing that constructing an electrical facility in an area vulnerable to flooding is dangerous to the waterfront community. East Boston is considered a flood zone due to the low-lying shoreline next to the neighborhood.

“The risk of putting [a substation] right in a flood zone is something that’s ridiculous,” Walkey said. “I do want reliable electrical service ... but I want to see it built someplace where it’s going to last.”

Paula García, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the substation’s location also poses a large fire hazard as the site is nearby large amounts of jet fuel from Logan International Airport.

“If there is a fire, can you imagine the risk that these neighborhoods are going to be facing?” García said. “And if it’s densely populated, it’s going to be very damaging for the community.”

Eversource has said the substation’s design exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards and that the project would be built to withstand 500-year floodwaters.

Local advocates hope that through protesting, state and local authorities will learn and take action against the substation, or that the protests will push Eversource to rethink the facility’s location.

East Boston residents and GreenRoots are also taking legal action to stop the project through the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. On Dec. 17, 2022, they appealed, again, the license Eversource received to construct the substation on the waterfront after their first appeal was rejected back in November 2022.

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Staci Rubin, a Conservation Law Foundation attorney representing GreenRoots in the appeal, said the organization is arguing that the siting board did not properly assess other alternatives to the substation, such as solar panels.

“The siting board was supposed to find that the benefits of the project outweigh the local burdens, and we don’t think that the siting board did that assessment,” Rubin said.

Walkey said local advocates are currently planning future protests and rallies, despite the police response earlier this year.

A BPD spokesperson said patrolling officers noticed the group, and police then sent out the emergency deployment team because of the large number of people, though the protesters say there were only about a dozen.

“I find it very concerning when the police seem to be monitoring and are right on top of activists who are who are fighting for climate change,” Walkey said.

Nijjar said she hopes that the protests’ message will draw the attention of state and local officials as the electrical facility could cause a “massive tragedy” in the community.

“This is my home,” Nijjar said. “And I don’t want to move out because of that electrical substation.”


Ashley Soebroto can be reached at ashley.soebroto@globe.com. Follow her @ashsoebroto.