What’s Left Once You Take Away EJ Communities in Massachusetts?

Environmental justice designation coming under scrutiny

Bruce Mohl – CommonWealth Daily Download editor

August 3, 2021

Environmental justice communities, marginalized areas of the state overburdened with pollution from power plants, industrial facilities, and highways, are turning out to be more commonplace in Massachusetts than you might think.

Earlier this year, when the Legislature passed a sweeping climate change bill containing language defining an environmental justice, or EJ community, advocates said the measure was needed to protect areas of the state with high populations of people of color, low-income residents, and other marginalized groups that face disproportionate environmental burdens.

But as the definition is being applied, the number of EJ communities is turning out to be larger than expected. According to a state analysis of Census data, close to 200 of the state’s 351 cities and towns contain some EJ neighborhoods.

There were municipalities containing EJ neighborhoods you would expect, including Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, and Randolph, where the entire city was an EJ community. Others high on the list included Brockton, Fall River, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lowell, Malden, New Bedford, North Adams, Quincy, Springfield, and Worcester.

But there were also cities and towns containing fairly high concentrations of EJ neighborhoods that one would hardly describe as environmentally overburdened, including Acton, Amherst, Arlington, Avon, Brookline, Lexington, Waltham, Watertown, and Westborough.

The state’s EJ designation is based on income, minority, and language metrics in a particular neighborhood, or Census block. According to the state’s definition, a neighborhood is considered an EJ community if its annual median household income is less than 65 percent of the statewide annual median, if minorities comprise at least 40 percent of the population, if at least 25 percent of households lack English language proficiency, or if minorities represent at least 25 percent of the population and the annual median household income of the entire municipality does not exceed 150 percent of the statewide annual median income.

Last week, state environmental officials showed just how powerful the EJ designation could be. In setting regulations for the construction of wood-burning power plants, the officials said the facilities would not qualify for essential ratepayer subsidies if they were located in an EJ community or within five miles of one. That ruling meant that 89 percent of the state was off-limits to biomass plants and someone looking to build such a facility in Massachusetts could only locate it in 35 of the state’s 351 cities and towns.

Needham, Dover, Weston, Wayland, Lincoln, Concord, and Carlisle have no EJ neighborhoods, but they were largely off-limits to biomass plants because they are near EJ neighborhoods in adjacent municipalities.

Needham and Dover, for example, border two EJ neighborhoods in Wellesley. While the individual neighborhoods in Wellesley are considered EJ based on their minority population, the population overall in Wellesley is 77 percent white, with Asian as its largest minority group at 12 percent. The the median income overall in Wellesley is $197,132.

Much of Cohasset, Scituate, and Marshfield would be open to wood-burning power plants under the new regulations because they have no EJ communities and they are surrounded by other communities that lack EJ populations, including Hingham and Norwell.

Lawmakers representing some of the 35 communities where a biomass facility would qualify for ratepayer subsidies are grumbling that their constituents are unfairly being singled out for possible exposure to soot and other air pollution from wood-burning power plants.

“If we’re going to regulate biomass out of 90 percent of the Commonwealth, we might as well make it ineligible for [incentive programs] across the entire Commonwealth,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who represents 17 western Massachusetts towns where biomass would remain eligible.