Decisions about where to site energy infrastructure have long left out those who end up suffering the worst consequences of those decisions — the environmental justice communities that are often home to facilities that can pollute the air and water, according to a new report issued early Tuesday by Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office.
The report, titled “Overly Impacted and Rarely Heard,” calls for reforms to be implemented at the Department of Public Utilities and the Energy Facilities Siting Board — two agencies that have long been targeted by advocacy groups for being inaccessible to the general public.
“The DPU and the EFSB are two entities that have incredible decision-making power that determines how a community addresses climate issues,” Campbell said in an interview. “But sadly, the communities that bear the burden of addressing environmental issues often are not at the table and not participating fully because of barriers that exist, and some of those barriers have been created by the agencies themselves.”
The report comes at a time when the relationship between energy production, regulation and environmental justice is taking on a new prominence with the administration of Governor Maura Healey. Healey recently appointed two new commissioners to the Department of Public Utilities, opting for experts with years of experience in clean energy and climate law and advocacy. It’s also a time when the state is poised to vastly expand energy facilities in the state, as a dramatic shift from fossil fuels to electricity for home heating and transportation increased the need for infrastructure.
The report, which began when Healey was attorney general, was produced following a series of meetings with various environmental justice and climate advocacy organizations across the Commonwealth.
The Department of Public Utilities and the Energy Facilities Siting Board play a critical role in the state. They handle technical questions ranging from how to chart the shift away from natural gas in the face of climate change, to approving Mass Save plans to reduce energy usage. They decide how much ratepayers will have to pay for energy facilities such as new power plants or electric substations and where those facilities will be located.
While these processes are technical out of necessity, the report finds there is not adequate effort made to allow for public participation. The findings suggest the bar for participation might as well be an advanced technical degree, the ability to spend hours studying plans, and the freedom to convene regularly in the middle of the day.
Despite barriers, the report finds that even when the public does participate, “agency decisions do not reflect their concerns,” according to the report.
“Those shouldering the disproportionate burdens have been excluded, shut out and rendered voiceless at the hands of the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board,” Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the environmental justice advocacy group GreenRoots, said in a statement. “As we move towards a greener future for Massachusetts, we must prioritize environmental justice populations; and that starts by ensuring they have a seat at the table and equitable access to information.”
GreenRoots was among the groups that helped produce the report, along with the National Consumer Law Center, Massachusetts Climate Action Network, Conservation Law Foundation, and more. To produce the report, the groups met over 18 months and circulated a survey that garnered 600 individual responses. The group “was deeply struck by the depth of frustration and disenchantment with the DPU and EFSB voiced by so many interview and focus group participants,” according to the report.
The report includes a series of recommendations, which include the following:
- The DPU and EFSB should investigate and revisit their approach to regulations in response to recent climate legislation.
- The DPU and EFSB should provide plain language executive summaries for long and technical orders, as well as educational resources on their websites to help decode agency decisions and proceedings.
- The DPU and EFSB should respond to stakeholder comments and concerns, and make transcripts of hearings free and easy to access.
- The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs should establish an Office of Public Participation where community members can provide input.
A theme of the report is the necessity of incorporating environmental justice into the decision-making process, something that Elena Weissmann, northeast regional director of the advocacy group Vote Solar said was essential. “We’re urging the DPU and EFSB to take action on these recommendations, so we can have an energy system that is just and benefits all Bay Staters, especially folks that experience the highest burdens and heaviest impacts of our polluting fossil fuel system,” she said in a statement.
Notably, two contributors to the report are now government appointees — Staci Ruben, formerly of the Conservation Law Foundation, is now a DPU commissioner, and María Belén Power, formerly of GreenRoots, is now the state’s first Undersecretary of Environmental Justice.
Campbell said that many of the recommendations included in the report could be implemented by the agencies — something she says her office will do everything in its power to ensure.
“I often say those who are living with the injustice have the solutions to address them. This report demonstrates that,” she said.