A Historic Moment for the Environment and Racial Justice

December 6, 2014

By Dr. Daniel Faber, Staci Rubin, Esq., and Veronica Eady, Esq. of the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Alliance

Governor Patrick signs an Executive Order on Environmental Justice

As demonstrated by the events following the grand jury decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police, racial inequality in America is a cancer. But there is some good news. On November 25, Governor Deval L. Patrick signed a landmark Executive Order on Environmental Justice that requires state agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their actions on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. While this action will not result in immediate healing from a long history of racism, the Commonwealth just took one step toward addressing the legacy of racial injustice. Governor Patrick and his administration deserve congratulations for this historic act.

Environmental justice (EJ) populations reside in 137 of the Commonwealth's 351 municipalities. For too long, residents in these communities have lived with substantially greater risk of exposure to environmental health hazards than the general citizenry. The people of Chelsea, Roxbury, Brockton, New Bedford, Lawrence, Springfield, and other communities must deal daily with the dumping of garbage and chemical waste on vacant lots; toxic air and water contamination from dirty industry, incinerators, and power plants; highly polluting roadways and airports; landfills and trash transfer stations; and/or inadequate public transportation and lack of green space and parks.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that Boston has the fourth worse racial disparities of any city in the country with respect to public exposure to nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant linked to asthma and heart disease. No wonder communities of color such as Dorchester and Roxbury have the highest rates of childhood asthma and emergency room visits in the Commonwealth.

The reasons for such inequality are numerous. But what is true is that industry and the state often allow the siting of ecologically hazardous facilities in communities that have less political power. One California consulting firm openly recommended that state officials locate incinerators in “lower socio-economic neighborhoods” because of the minimal likelihood that those communities have the power to successfully mount an opposition. This might explain why in Massachusetts, according to a Northeastern University study, communities of color face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous sites and facilities that is more than 20 times greater than predominantly white communities.

In response to these inequalities, a vibrant environmental justice movement has emerged in Massachusetts, demanding the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. The Governor’s Executive Order signals a realization that the Commonwealth cannot ignore the growing racial and class inequalities due to a groundswell of mobilization by residents from across the state. Convened by Alternatives for Community & Environment, the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Alliance is made up of more than twenty grassroots organizations such as Arise for Social Justice, Chelsea Creek Action Group, Citizens Leading Environmental Action Network, Groundwork Lawrence, Hands Across the River Coalition, Westfield Concerned Citizens, and Worcester Roots. The Alliance joined hands with allies from universities and environmental organizations to call for the Governor to take action. And to the Governor’s credit, he has responded.

The Executive Order will require all state agencies to develop an EJ strategy by May 24, 2015. Each of these strategies must identify how state regulatory authority over industrial and commercial projects can be used to protect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, and create greater access for public participation in decision-making processes. This includes the establishment of an advisory council comprised of community stakeholders. In addition to minimizing pollution and health risks, the Executive Order could facilitate investment in economic growth and green jobs and ecological restoration of distressed communities.

By signing this Executive Order, Governor Patrick has taken a critically important step in helping to realize the goals of our state Constitution: that all people have the right to a healthy and clean environment. As members of the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Alliance, we remain committed to utilizing the mechanisms afforded by the Executive Order to improve the quality of life for all people of the Commonwealth. We call on Governor-Elect Charlie Baker to continue these efforts to bring about racial justice by updating the EJ Policy to require enhanced enforcement and substantive review for energy, transportation, and other projects impacting communities of color and low-income communities.