New State-wide Environmental Justice Policy Issued

New State-wide Environmental Justice Policy Issued

The Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) released in February, at long last, a revised Massachusetts Environmental Justice Policy. It can be found here:

ACE had a major role in strengthening the Policy and in pressing for environmental justice to be a consideration across all state agencies. The policy had not been updated since 2002. The revision was required under Executive Order 552 after years of advocacy and collaboration by ACE and its partners. After the Executive Order was signed by Governor Deval Patrick, ACE was welcomed as a partner with EEA in the review and revision process. The release of this update is a long awaited and welcome development.

The state’s Environmental Justice Policy is an important resource for supporting vulnerable communities in the Commonwealth.  It’s a testament to the commitment and tenacity of the environmental justice community and its allies that this policy continues to be relevant and influential.  There are several important improvements to the policy. ACE insisted that the new policy incorporate climate change considerations, provide communities with greater access to being identified as an EJ community, and have a strong public health focus. These new areas were adopted, at least in part. The updated Policy now explicitly incorporates consideration of climate change impacts, which is important because vulnerable communities are likely to be the first and most heavily impacted communities.  

Furthermore, the Policy creates an opportunity for communities that do not meet the current criteria to petition to be designated as an EJ community. If implemented in good faith, this provision allows the use of alternative geographic classifications or other definitions of vulnerability in order to receive the same protection and support as other EJ communities.

Health criteria are now included as part of a secondary screening process. This is an important acknowledgement of the role environmental conditions play in health equity. It also recognizes that communities characterized by high rates of pre-existing health conditions deserve extra scrutiny when the government makes decisions that impact their environment. ACE and its allies were critical to the inclusion of these new provisions in this policy update.

The updated policy requires other agencies to develop environmental justice policies of their own, as required by Executive Order 552. ACE will strongly press for Cabinet-level agencies to move forward on creating and implementing environmental justice policies and designating environmental justice coordinators.

Of course, the success of this policy depends on the timely hiring of a Director of Environmental Justice to support the implementation of this policy within EEA and to support the Interagency Working Group. The Director should understand the concerns of environmental justice communities, the ways in which environmental injustice occurs, and the regulatory constraints and opportunities to address and prevent environmental injustice in the Commonwealth.

ACE welcomes inquiries about its legal and public policy work. Please contact Richard M. Juang, Esq. Staff Attorney at 617-861-1401 or  Special thanks to Neenah Estrella-Luna, PhD and Marcos Luna, PhD for this article.