Advocates press for more emphasis on environmental justice populations – CommonWealth Beacon

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Politics, ideas, and civic life in Massachusetts
WITH THE LEGISLATIVE meat grinder at full churn, clean energy and climate resiliency advocates turn their gaze to the House, weighing its own version of a climate bill. Some advocates will be quick to hit ‘Control-F’ on the document, hoping to see three words appear in a specific order: environmental justice population.
Environmental justice populations, broadly speaking, tend to be low-income communities and communities of color hit hard by the impacts of climate change. Getting to a clear definition in Massachusetts, let alone its policy implications, has been a long road through several climate bills.
Last month, a sweeping bill was touted in Senate press releases as consistent with a legacy of environmental justice efforts, but when members of the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Legislative Table started poring through it, they saw language evoking their priorities but no clear acknowledgement of the communities themselves.
“I personally felt surprised, because ‘environmental justice population’ is a word that comes out of my mouth very frequently,” said Rusty Polsgrove, environmental justice organizer with Arise for Social Justice, who spoke on The Codcast alongside John Walkey, director of climate justice and waterfront initiatives with GreenRoots.
The absence, they say, is more literal than philosophical. There are existing efforts and commitments from legislators and executive branch officials alike on environmental justice principles, but the group of climate-focused non-profits views missing language directly referring to “environmental justice populations” as deprioritizing the communities as a core part of climate policy in a way that sidesteps actionable changes.
At issue seems to be a disconnect between legislators, who say the definition of these populations and their obligations are already on the books, and advocates who feel that it is essential to forefront the communities in explicit terms. Anything less, in Walkey’s characterization, amounts to “redefining” something they pushed hard for and “feels like a backtracking on what’s already been accomplished in the past.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection in March rolled out new regulations that would require certain facilities seeking air emissions permits in or near communities with environmental justice populations to conduct a cumulative impact analysis on the community.
“It’s very involved. It put a lot of effort into it. We greatly appreciate it,” Walkey said. It can be a model for other agencies to consider how to incorporate those practices, he said, especially as the federal government mulls regulations on cumulative impact assessments. 
“So this is coming down the pike,” he said of the assorted regulations, “and little by little agencies are starting to adopt it. So actually defining what it means to do a cumulative impact assessment, defining that legally, is really important for legislators because then they don’t have to keep trying to define all these things and the agencies don’t have to try to guess what the legislators are talking about.”
The environmental justice population concept does exist in the Senate bill, a few layers deep. While prior climate bills straightforwardly included language like ensuring that proposals for wind energy contracts “include benefits to environmental justice populations and low-income ratepayers in the commonwealth,” the current bill cordons the subject into a new section establishing an office of environmental justice and equity within the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. 
Polsgrove and Walkey note that this would codify into law what Gov. Maura Healey announced in February – that environmental justice principles will be incorporated into the administration’s  energy transition plan. 
The new office would be tasked with applying standards for accommodating environmental justice communities established under prior climate bills in new guidance on potential community benefit plans and cumulative impact analyses.
If a proposed project affects an environmental justice population – defined in law based on a combination of factors, including income level, age, and education – section 62 of chapter 30 of the General Laws currently requires “additional measures to improve public participation by the environmental justice population.” These can include options like making public documents available in English and any other language spoken by a significant number of the affected environmental justice population, providing translation services, accessible meeting locations near public transportation, and creating local repositories for project review documents.
While Walkey said he doesn’t want to “undercut” the importance of establishing the office in a way that would survive future generations of governors who may be less sympathetic to the need, “it’s not new. It’s not moving the ball forward,” he said. 
Moving the ball forward, Polsgrove and Walkey said, would have meant making direct references to the populations and laying out clear terms for assessing their particular risks and characteristics.
“The cumulative impact assessment really is looking at who is being punched,” Walkey said. “Are you punching Mr. T, and it’s Mike Tyson? Okay, so it’s an equal fight here. Or are you punching somebody who already has health impacts, who’s unemployed, who lives in poor housing, who can’t pay rent? All these sorts of things accumulate on a person, and they don’t just accumulate on persons, but it’s a cumulative burden on an entire community.”

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by Jennifer Smith, CommonWealth Beacon
July 8, 2024
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