Last week the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), GreenRoots and Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The group argues that the EPA failed to investigate discrimination concerns in the ongoing Eversource East Eagle substation project in East Boston.
The groups previously filed a Title VI civil rights complaint against Massachusetts energy officials after they ignored resident concerns and refused to provide translation services at community meetings in Eastie where many non-English speakers, particularly Spanish-speaking residents live.
The group said the EPA declined to act on that civil rights complaint, and the subsequent lawsuit aims to force a proper investigation.
“As a mother raising three sons who use the playground that is so close to this park I feel it is outrageous and especially frustrating that in this process, in which I and my neighbors would like to have participated and make our voices and concerns heard, we have been shut out by the lack of interpretation or the poor quality of interpretation when it was provided,” said Noemy Rodriguez an East Boston resident for the past 8 years and organizer with GreenRoots.
Amy Laura Cahn, Interim Director of the Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program at CLF said for years, state energy officials have unlawfully shut out Spanish-speaking Eastie and Chelsea residents from decisions that will impact their communities for generations.
“We rely on the EPA to enforce civil rights laws, which guarantee residents a say in what happens in their communities,” she said. “Without action by the agency, the community has no chance to right this egregious wrong.”
In December, despite over a dozen city, state and federal elected officials urging Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides to postpone a Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) hearing on Eversource’s highly controversial plan to build a new substation in East Boston, the state went ahead with its hearing. However, the EFSB delayed the expected vote on whether or not to approve Eversource’s substation due to last week’s snowstorm.
At that meeting the EFSB heard testimony from dozens of Eastie elected officials, residents and activists who have been fighting against placing the substation City Yards in East Eagle Square for years. Ahead of the hearing and on behalf of the neighborhood 16 elected officials sent a letter to Theoharides and urged her to delay the hearing and vote.
The letter cited serious concerns about the accessibility of the hearing to Eastie residents, to which the COVID-19 pandemic has hit especially hard. The elected officials argued that with Eastie experiencing one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the state the high positivity rate has led to stark economic fallout, including unemployment, food insecurity, and homelessness and holding such an important meeting and vote is unfair–given Eastie’s steadfast opposition to the proposal over the years.
However, the EFSB still went forward with the hearing but Eversource’s plan was condemned by attendees like City Councilor Lydia Edwards.
First proposed in 2014, the project would construct two new underground transmission lines through Boston, Everett, and Chelsea connecting with a new substation in Eastie. The line would run through environmental justice communities whose density, pollution, and high rates of poverty have left residents exposed to public health crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed project would place them at even greater risk, with the high-voltage electric substation across from a playground, in a densely packed residential neighborhood, and in an area on the banks of the Chelsea Creek highly susceptible to catastrophic flooding.
“The EPA has ignored its obligations under Title VI for decades,” said Lauren Sampson, Staff Attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, where she coordinates a Race and Climate Justice project. “Although the Trump Administration has tried time and time again to destroy these vital civil rights protections, the law is clear: federal funding cannot be used to support race and national origin discrimination in any form.”