Four climate protesters were arrested Tuesday morning after hopping the fence surrounding a controversial East Boston electrical substation construction site and sitting down in a gravel lot for a picnic.
Virginia Fisher, Marie Hansen, Gregory Mangan, and John Walkey, members of the civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion Boston, were protesting construction of the substation, according to Brian Okum, a spokesperson for the organization. All four have been charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing, Okum said.
The Boston Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for further information about the arrests Tuesday.
The group’s picnic, complete with a checkered gingham blanket and picnic basket, was intended to highlight the city’s original plan to use the property as shared green space for the community “in an area where there’s not a lot of green space,” Alex Chambers, an organizer with Extinction Rebellion Boston, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“We held a picnic to envision what [the site] should be,” Chambers said. “It’s very hard for people to be able to visualize a better world, but when we go out there to demonstrate and we do to show people, it makes it real.”
4 climate activists have been arrested at the East Boston substation site, after peacefully disrupting construction. This marks 12 #NoEastieSubstation activists arrested across 9 protests this year so far, demanding #EnvironmentalJustice. @Joan_Vennochi @JonLamson2 @GreenRootsEJ pic.twitter.com/crsFrESPsJ— Extinction Rebellion Boston 🐝⌛🦋 (@XRBoston) June 27, 2023
The East Eagle substation, which would convert high-voltage electricity to lower voltages in order to distribute it to households, was proposed by New England energy company Eversource in 2014. For nine years, residents of the majority-immigrant area have fought against the substation, said Sara Arman, interim co-deputy director of GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based community organization.
Arman said a “lack of commitment to language justice” and inadequate interpretation for Spanish-speaking attendees at community meetings meant residents were often excluded from the substation planning process and struggled to understand what the facility would mean for their community.
“Having a population that speaks another language and primarily speaks Spanish, it’s really important to make sure that they are involved in the process,” Arman said. “Environmental justice really isn’t only about the outcomes and what’s being built, but it’s about the process ... and this is a clear example of a place that residents have not been engaged.”
Protesters argue the substation, sited in a floodplain area, threatens the health of residents in a community already overburdened by industrial infrastructure and pollution. Flooding at the substation could lead to an explosion or fire, critics say, and is even more dangerous given the site’s proximity to both the storage area for Logan Airport’s jet fuel and a nearby playground.
Eagle Hill residents “don’t want their children to play across from a time bomb,” said Jule Manitz, an organizer for Extinction Rebellion Boston and a Chelsea resident. “The single biggest electricity consumer in East Boston is the airport, which is floodproof. So move it there.”
But a spokesperson for Eversource said the company cannot require a private landowner to allow the utility to build on its property, preventing it from simply relocating the project to Logan, which is owned by Massport. And in September 2022, the Suffolk County Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Eversource had “reasonably addressed risks from future sea level rise.”
Eversource broke ground on the project in January after the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board granted the utility company a certificate in November, allowing it to bypass the final 14 permits needed by state and local governments to move forward with construction.
In an e-mail statement to the Globe Tuesday, Eversource spokesperson Christopher McKinnon said residents of East Boston, the only neighborhood in the city currently without an existing substation, are at “real risk of prolonged power outages” without the substation and that the electrical facility will “address the severe electric capacity constraints currently existing in Chelsea and East Boston.”
“Without the added capacity the new substation will create, East Boston will not be able to fully access and take advantage of clean technologies like electric vehicles, electric heating, new heat pump technologies, and local renewables like wind, solar and battery storage,” McKinnon said. “Communities like East Boston cannot be left behind in the transition to a clean energy future.”
Governor Maura Healey had previously expressed opposition to the location of the substation, and members of her administration met with community members and activists in February to explore actions they could take to move the substation. But in June, Chambers said, an attorney notified activists that the governor did not have a legal route to pursue relocation of the substation to Logan Airport.
Now, Extinction Rebellion is renewing demands that Healey ”use her political will to move the substation,” Chambers said. “We believe that she’s not doing everything that she could to stop this.”
Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said in a statement to the Globe that the governor “shares the community’s frustrations with the exclusionary and unjust process that led to its permitting,” but did not address questions regarding whether the administration plans to halt or move construction.