Guest Op-Ed: Environmental Justice for the 21st Century

By Anthony D’Ambrosio

Our District is blessed with numerous waterfronts and beaches that attract visitors from around the world. Take Winthrop Parkway, for example. With beautiful coastline on one side and idyllic beach homes on the other, the Parkway represents the best of New England and bridges two of our great municipalities: Winthrop and Revere. It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, sixty-foot waves easily breached the sea wall and fully submerged the road in icy water. In addition to cutting off one of the only access points to Winthrop and presenting a life-threatening risk to surrounding residents, the flooding from that day created scenes more reminiscent to far-away typhoons.

Unfortunately, as we all know, this was not a one-time crisis. The Parkway flooded again during an excessively high tide in February and when Hurricane Ida hit in September. Further, just two weeks ago, a report released by the First Street Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to assessing the flood risk to American communities, found that Suffolk County is one of the top 20 counties in the nation expected to see the largest increase in flood risk over the next 30 years. This means that Revere, Winthrop, and Boston will soon face similar flood threats to hurricane-prone cities in Louisiana and Texas.

Our environmental problems don’t stop with flooding. Residents in our District face the brunt of environmental harms from the State’s infrastructure systems: airport noise and air pollution, combustible jet fuel stored near parks and playgrounds, and smog from traffic congestion. The children in our District are more than four times as likely to suffer from symptoms of asthma and other respiratory conditions as children living elsewhere. The infrastructure in our District benefits everyone in Massachusetts including those from away towns, yet our residents alone suffer from the catastrophic threats to their health, homes, and livelihoods.

Most of the residents in our District live in what the EEA calls “environmental justice populations,” neighborhoods in which residents are more vulnerable to environmental harms and exclusion from participation in environmental, energy, and climate change decision-making. The EEA released its updated “Environmental Justice Policy” in June of this year to address the exclusion of impacted residents from policy decisions, but people are right to be skeptical. For far too long, residents of our District have been promised a seat at the table for decisions that affect their homes and health only to be completely ignored in favor of Massport and utilities giants.

One recent example of this is Massachusetts’s decision to permit the building of an Eversource electrical substation at an East Boston location near Chelsea Creek, across the street from the American Legion Playground, and within 800 feet of a jet fuel storage site. Despite the risk of flooding from the creek, fire or explosion from the jet fuel, and harm to children who might stumble upon the site from the playground, the Commonwealth proceeded with the project. Eversource selected the East Boston site largely because it already had the property and did not want to go through the trouble of finding another. The State chose the convenience of a massive utility over the health and safety of our residents. 

This is unacceptable. We must hold the electrical substation, airport, and Saugus Wheelabrator accountable to state pollution standards and be unafraid to enact penalties when such standards are violated. We must hold state officials accountable to their own stated policies of environmental justice. Our District cannot always bear the brunt for other parts of the State.  We must fund a more robust restitution fund for those suffering from the health consequences of environmental harms.

To preserve our beautiful coastal areas, reduce litter, and protect local marine wildlife, we must fund the placement of more trash and recycling bins at our public beaches. We must also secure more funding to combat coastal erosion, sea wall decay, jet fuel spills, noise damage to homes.  Additionally, the state should expand the COASTSWEEP clean-up program to keep our coastlines free of debris and provide more environmental volunteer opportunities for students and other community members.

Finally, the contamination of our water systems with PFAS from factories, landfills, construction sites, and even firefighting materials presents another environmental challenge for the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has recently adopted new regulations requiring public water systems to test for PFAS. This was an important first step; however, if such tests show that PFAS is present in public water systems, the state should make funds available to municipalities that will have to make costly repairs to their water systems in order to prevent PFAS contamination. The costs of such repairs should NOT be passed onto Commonwealth residents in the form of higher water and sewer rates.

Every year we see the damaging consequences of environmental inaction grow. We must act now to build a safe and sustainable future for our families.

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Anthony A. D’Ambrosio, has a BA Yale; Masters from University of Cambridge and is a candidate for State Senate

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