Massachusetts Environmental Justice Act H.2913 / S.426

Sign on to Support the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Act! 

Overview

It is a fundamental human right, and part of the Massachusetts State Constitution, that all people should be protected from environmental pollution and live in a clean and healthful environment. Despite this, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely than wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods to be in the shadows of dirty power plants, garbage incinerators, leaking landfills, and other obvious dangers to public health.

The Environmental Justice Act, House Bill H.2913 / Senate Bill S.426 was introduced this legislative session by State Representatives RoseLee Vincent and Michelle DuBois and State Senator Jamie Eldridge. This Act would make environmental justice a legislative mandate for all state regulatory agencies, in order to protect the health of all communities, particularly those at risk of being harmed by high-pollution industries. It would require all state agencies to development policies to ensure that low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities have the right to participate in decision-making when polluting industries want to move into their neighborhoods. The Act would also require regulators to actively protect vulnerable communities from bearing an unfair and disproportionate share of pollution, environmental degradation, and risks to public health.

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Dear Chairman Pignatelli, Chairman Gobi and Members of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resouces, and Environment of the Massachusetts legislature:

Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution states that the "people shall have the right to clean air and water." Article 97 offers a realistic and necessary promise of a healthful and sustainable environment to all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of income, race, national origin, or age. We write in support of H.2913 / S.426, An Act Relative to Environmental Justice and Toxics Reduction in the Commonwealth (“the Environmental Justice Act”) and ask you to affirm this promise.

The Commonwealth's low-income residents and communities of color continue to face a disproportionate burden of pollution and its harmful health effects. For too long, Massachusetts has failed to act on the principle of environmental justice: that wealth and race should not determine who gets to breathe fresh air and who has to breathe smokestack emissions, or who gets to drink clean water and who has to drink water slick with landfill leachate. To its credit, the Commonwealth has expressed a commitment to environmental justice since 2002, when the first Environmental Justice policy for the Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs was issued. This commitment was reaffirmed with Executive Order 552 in 2014. EO 552 required all the Secretariats to issue environmental justice policies and assign staff to coordinate environmental justice issues within and between agencies. Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has affirmed the importance of environmental justice by keeping Executive Order 552 in place. But the work of environmental justice has now stalled. Virtually all of Executive Order 552 remains un-implemented. There remains little or no coordination within or between state agencies on pressing issues of environmental justice. This is not a theoretical problem. As you read this, an incinerator continues to release emissions into the lungs of working-class neighborhoods and its unlined ash landfill continues to leak with unknown consequences.

The Environmental Justice Act requires our regulatory agencies to do better. It would codify Executive Order 552 into Massachusetts General Law. We believe that our state agencies are staffed with personnel at all levels of good will who support environmental justice. We ask you to give strength to their good intentions by creating a clear legislative mandate in support of concrete steps toward environmental justice across all state agencies.

Nothing in the Environmental Justice act harms non-polluting businesses. Indeed, if our regulators are wise, the environmental justice policies they develop will create new markets for clean industries that are friendly to the environment and public health. The rapid growth of the solar sector, organic small farms, and energy efficiency upgrade businesses all attest to the economic benefits of creating new markets through smart environmental legislation and regulations.

For all these reasons, we urge you to issue a favorable report to H.2913 / S.426, An Act Relative to Environmental Justice and Toxics Reduction, as soon as possible. We ask that you push for its enactment this legislative session. Thank you.

Sincerely,

 

Massachusetts Environmental Justice Act H.2913 / S.426 An Act Relative to Environmental Justice and Toxics Reduction in the Commonwealth (Reps. Vincent & Dubois / Sen. Eldridge)


Key Questions and Answers about this Bill

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice is the right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment regardless of race, income, national origin or English language proficiency.

Why is this Act necessary?

Article 97 of the Massachusetts State Constitution explicitly sets a high standard for the protection of our common environment and health. The Massachusetts Environmental Justice Act is a major step toward fulfilling that Constitutional promise. In part, the Act achieves this by making the principle of equal environmental justice protection for all residents of the Commonwealth part of the Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) and requiring that all Executive Secretariats develop policies and strategies to achieve environmental justice.

Why codify the principle of environmental justice in the MGL?

Poverty in a neighborhood or community should never be a license to pollute. Historically, however, low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and immigrant communities have been often seen as easy targets for building high-pollution industrial projects such as gas-fired power plants, factories that use toxic chemicals, and landfills. Towns facing hard economic times have often been promised economic benefits that, in fact, fade quickly and will be outweighed by the cumulative public health cost of dealing with contaminated air, water, and land for generations. Therefore, a strong public policy against further polluting already-overburdened communities should be part of our laws and regulations for the sake of current and future generations.

What are the most important parts of the Act?

The Massachusetts Environmental Justice Act implements the State Constitutional guarantee that “The people shall have the right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment” (Article 97) without discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, or personal wealth.

As a first step, the Act writes an explicit definition of environmental justice into the General Laws that is easily understood and accepted by regulators and ordinary residents, alike. This strengthens the Commonwealth’s ability to have effective and consistent environmental justice protections throughout the state.

The Act makes clear the responsibility of the Secretariats for environmental justice and promotes inter-agency cooperation.

The Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs must appoint a Director of Environmental Justice. All other Secretariats, such as Health and Human Services and Transportation, are required to appoint environmental justice coordinators. Together, the Director of Environmental Justice and the Environmental Justice Coordinators are responsible for moving environmental justice efforts forward within and across the Secretariats. All Secretariats must establish environmental justice policies and their subordinate agencies must implement them.

The Act promotes the use of good science to guide public policies and requires polluting industries to consider the public health effects of their activities.

The Act creates an interdisciplinary scientific Advisory Council so that so policies in the Executive Branch can be informed by good science about the environment and public health. The Act also amends the existing criteria for Environmental Impact Reviews to include public health assessments.

The Act reduces the risk of communities being exposed to and contaminated by large quantities of highly toxic industrial chemicals.

The Act requires that the Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs develop ways to limit the number of new industrial facilities subject to the federal Toxics Release Inventory put in low-income communities. This will begin to limit the risk of toxic exposure by residents in those communities and preserve their access to a clean and healthful environment.

The Act puts fines levied on violators of environmental laws to good public use. The Act creates a Supplemental Environmental Project fund to support environmentally beneficial projects in low-income communities. This allows new community projects and innovations to be funded without relying on new taxes or fees.

Is this Act financially prudent?

Yes: the Act protects public health and people’s access to a clean environment while imposing no new burdens on individuals, municipalities, or businesses, except as clearly needed to protect public health. Specifically, Act is crafted to follow and update the Executive Order 552 on Environmental Justice, which was issued at the end of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration in 2014. As a matter of law, Executive Order 552 has remained continuously in effect since 2014; however, it has largely not been implemented, despite its principles having the support of the residents of the Commonwealth and the Secretariat of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). Accordingly, this Act codifies Executive Order 552 into state law and gives statutory authority to all executive agencies to secure environmental justice protections across our state, without imposing heavy costs or burdens.

This Fact Sheet has been prepared by the Green Justice Coalition (GJC). GJC is a statewide coalition of nonprofit environmental justice, community organizing, and labor groups. We represent the voice of low-income communities, communities of color, renters, immigrants, communities of faith, and workers who are working toward environmental and economic justice throughout Massachusetts. We advocate for a just transition to a green economy that helps all our communities. GJC organizations include Alternatives for Community & Environment, Boston Climate Action Network, Chelsea GreenRoots, Chinese Progressive Association, Clean Water Action, Coalition for Social Justice, Community Labor United, and Youth on Board. September 27, 2017