Study Finds Massachusetts Environmental Justice Communities Disproportionately Burdened by Existing Electric Infrastructure   

New Union of Concerned Scientists, Conservation Law Foundation, Alternatives for Community and Environment, and GreenRoots Analysis Underscores Need for Equitable Siting Reform  

Published Mar 26, 2024

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The current process for siting power infrastructure places undue burdens on environmental justice communities across Massachusetts and proposed infrastructure could exacerbate those burdens, a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), and GreenRoots revealed. According to the report, more than 80% of existing fossil-fueled electricity generating units—and their associated health and safety risks—are located in or within one mile of where people of color, low-income people, and limited-English proficient speakers live.   

“This analysis shows yet again that environmental justice communities in Massachusetts have suffered for decades from inequitably sited energy infrastructure, bringing unhealthy and unsafe conditions like air pollution to their neighborhoods,” said Paula García, lead author of the analysis and senior energy analyst and energy justice lead at UCS. “As our state builds toward a cleaner future, decision makers have a responsibility to prevent additional burdens on low-income communities and communities of color. We’re hopeful that Commonwealth leaders will take action to ensure our state is building toward a smarter, more just electricity grid that can benefit everyone.”  

The analysis, “Siting for a Cleaner, More Equitable Grid in Massachusetts,” looked at the distribution of existing and proposed substations and electricity generating units, directly inside, within one mile, and within five miles of environmental justice populations in Massachusetts. An environmental justice population is defined by state law as Census block groups (neighborhoods in the analysis) where the annual median household income is well below the statewide annual median; the community's overall average annual household income doesn't far exceed the state average; Black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander comprise a disproportionate amount of the population; and/or a significant number of households lack English-language proficiency. A more detailed definition is available here.   

The authors used S&P Global data for existing and proposed generation units, and the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD) for existing substations. In addition, the authors highlight that a lack of specific information in the utilities’ proposals related to the locations and assessment processes for more than 40 proposed substations raises serious transparency concerns and could lead to more adverse impacts for communities that have already suffered disproportionately from living in close proximity to polluting power facilities.  

"Massachusetts is working appropriately quickly to build infrastructure that will help meet important climate goals, but the current process for siting is hurting environmental justice communities and is alarmingly obscure,” said John Walkey, report co-author and director of climate justice and waterfront initiatives at GreenRoots. “It’s unclear if equity, efficiency, or even affordability are being prioritized in decision making. Unfortunately, the little information that is available suggests that proposed electric infrastructure will yet again disproportionately burden environmental justice communities. Decisionmakers must recognize this harmful pattern and establish a formal avenue for community needs to be centered in decisions happening in their own backyard.” 

The Massachusetts legislature is considering multiple bills that include changes to the energy facility siting process, some of which prioritize equity. A siting reform bill must be passed by July 31 or will need to be reintroduced in January for the 2025-2026 legislative session.  

According to the study authors, the legislature must establish requirements for siting assessments that consider cumulative impacts, create avenues for meaningful early community engagement and accelerate approval timelines for clean energy projects like solar and wind. Bringing community needs to the forefront, the authors say, can prevent more harm in overburdened neighborhoods, accelerate approval timelines for clean energy projects, drive investments toward smarter and longer-term projects, and ultimately benefit everyone in the Commonwealth.   

“Too often, the health and wellbeing of communities of color, low-income residents, and people with limited English proficiency have been sacrificed in siting decisions under racist and classist policies,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, vice president for Massachusetts at CLF. “By prioritizing community voices at the start of siting decisions, Massachusetts can mend the wrongs of the past while building the clean future we deserve.”  

Energy infrastructure siting decisions must consider public health, climate change, and environmental justice as priorities, the authors conclude. Doing so is the only way the Commonwealth will be able to facilitate a transition to clean energy that maximizes a broad range of benefits now and in the future for all its residents.   

“The infrastructure choices we make today will have profound implications for present communities and for generations to come,” said Sofia E. Owen, senior attorney and director of environmental justice legal services at ACE. “Residents in environmental justice populations are historically burdened by the fossil fuel system and especially vulnerable to continued negative health and safety impacts. It is critical that the clean energy future we construct prioritizes the needs of these communities over industry interests. Doing so will benefit everyone and ensure equitable access to a healthier and safer future.”