An Unfair Burden: Why Environmental Justice Means Cleaner Air for Cities Like Chelsea, Mass.
More than 80,000 vehicles pass over the Tobin Bridge every day, bringing them through the heart of Chelsea, Mass., where Route 1 splits the city in two. Trucks and trains roll through the city at all hours of the day and night on their way to the largest produce distribution center on the East Coast. Massive, uncovered piles of salt, used for deicing roads in Massachusetts and New Hampshire throughout the winter, sit, uncovered, inches from the Chelsea Creek waterfront. Ships bring oil and gas to storage facilities along the Chelsea Creek, while airplane traffic overhead from nearby Logan International Airport roars with every arrival and departure.
Amid this onslaught of pollution from the roads, waters, and skies around Chelsea lies GreenRoots, an environmental justice organization fighting for the city’s environment, health, and quality of life. What started as a grassroots park advocacy group in the 1990s has grown into an organization that manages several community gardens, has restored several acres of land in the city, and spent the last year on the front lines of Chelsea’s response to COVID-19—which ravaged the city of nearly 40,000.
In the past year, the pandemic has illustrated how environmental degradation worsens the suffering of low-income and minority communities. While many essential workers in these communities continued working in retail, hospitality, and other industries, the air around their homes worsened the severity of COVID-19 infections. Limited access to green space and outdoor recreation—which many people turned to as indoor activities were shut down—offered little refuge from crowded, often multigenerational homes. GreenRoots and other organizations stepped up to help residents in Chelsea when cases surged, but lagging state support and existing environmental factors made it a difficult year for the city.
As Massachusetts looks toward recovery, projects like the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program—a long-gestated regional collaboration between Northeastern states to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector—aim to address transportation-related climate emissions while also addressing environmental justice and offering support to overburdened communities like Chelsea.
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice is social justice with a focus on the places where people, especially from low-income and minority communities, live and work every day. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Encompassing everything from water and air pollution to public transportation, environmental justice is about sharing the burden of environmental harms as well as fair access to all the good that comes from being outdoors.
Massachusetts designates some communities, including Chelsea, as environmental justice populations based on income, racial demographics, and English language proficiency rates. Identifying EJ populations began in 2002 and helps the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs target resources to more equitably serve and work with those communities. Black, Latinx, and low-income communities have historically experienced the worst effects of environmental degradation and pollution: factories were built where property prices were low, toxic waste dumps were zoned where locals lacked the resources to fight back, and entire city blocks were demolished to make room for highways, oil tank farms, and airports. These communities have also historically had the fewest parks, trails, pools, green spaces, and other positive environmental features that are commonplace in wealthy towns. Over the years, GreenRoots has seen its advocacy work shift from a focus on recreational space to public health and environmental concerns, says John Walkey, waterfront initiative coordinator at GreenRoots.
“There are kinds of land uses that benefit a region like power plants, salt piles, and industry,” Walkey says, “but they always seem to be disproportionately located in low-income communities.”
Environmental Justice and Air Quality
In environmental justice communities like Chelsea, the concentration of industry, highway traffic, power plants, and airplanes in the area puts residents at risk for health problems caused by breathing polluted air. Home to the New England Produce Center, hundreds of diesel trucks pass through the city every day to bring wholesale fruits and vegetables as far north as Canada and as far south as the Mid-Atlantic. Road salt piles serve communities throughout New England in the winter months, while gas tanks in Chelsea and neighboring East Boston keep the heat on in thousands of homes in the Northeast. A power station in neighboring Everett, gas import terminals, factories, Logan Airport, and Route 1 contribute even more chemicals to the air around the city.
During the pandemic, poor air quality has become an even more urgent concern because many of the health conditions caused by air pollution also have been shown to increase the risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide are chemicals typically emitted by vehicles, power plants, and other industrial sources and have been linked to asthma attacks and lung damage.
Fine particulate matter—tiny solid particles that are emitted from construction sites, diesel engines, and smokestacks, or form from chemicals reacting in the air—poses a particularly great threat to people’s health. Scientists say particles are small enough that they can get deep into the lungs and even pass into the bloodstream. Studies have linked fine particulate pollution to several health conditions including asthma, heart disease, weakened lungs, and other respiratory illnesses.
“Researchers are finding that fine particulate pollution plays a role in COVID susceptibility, which makes sense because it’s affecting the lungs,” said Georgia Murray, an AMC staff scientist whose research focuses on air quality. “If you’ve been in a community or worked in the outdoors in a high-diesel emission region for example, you’ve been exposed to these pollutants over time and that’s affected your health over the long term.”
In April 2020, COVID-19 cases in Chelsea skyrocketed to one of the highest infection rates in the nation—on par with those in some of the hardest-hit New York boroughs. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that almost 80 percent of Chelsea residents were considered essential workers, continuing to work outside their homes in grocery stores, hotels, and other service sectors throughout the pandemic. Two-thirds of Chelsea’s population is Latino, and 18 percent of the population lives in poverty—almost twice the poverty rate of Massachusetts as a whole.
With more than 40,000 residents in just over 2 square miles, Chelsea is also one of the Commonwealth’s most densely populated cities. Multiple generations or families may live under the same roof, making physical distancing impossible. Chelsea residents couldn’t even improve ventilation in their homes by opening windows and doors, per the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation, because the pervasive air pollution outside put family members at risk for health problems.
“Those people who are living on top of one another, those are the same people who are going out during COVID to work at Market Basket or were working in food delivery and distribution,” Walkey says. “So, these were people who were considered essential workers during COVID. However, when it comes to their rights and their well-being [outside of a global pandemic], they are really considered non-essential.”
The EPA regulates several common air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, but this landmark 1970 legislation focused on improving regional and national air quality rather than addressing local hotspots. Emissions-reducing programs like cap-and-trade, which allows polluters to buy and exchange the rights to pollute, helped decrease air pollution and had vast positive effects for the country as a whole, but it did not always create healthy air in low-income communities, according to the Brookings Institution. In the Northeast, a new initiative to address air pollution and the transportation sector offers hope for remedying some of that harm.
Addressing Transportation’s Role
Transportation emissions remain a public health problem in marginalized communities like Chelsea and are also the largest source of carbon dioxide in the Northeast. Murray, who works with AMC’s conservation staff on national and regional policies to reduce air pollution, says an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to tackle transportation pollution and correct past inequities.
“AMC sees the need for a paradigm shift nationally, regionally, and at the state level if we are going to improve everyone’s health and make safe and affordable mobility options available to all,” she says.
Murray sees AMC’s commitment to creating opportunities for all people to enjoy the outdoors aligning squarely with solving air pollution and transportation inequities in environmental justice communities. She points to AMC’s advocacy calling on Congress to improve transportation-related infrastructure, as well as access to trails and parks. AMC is urging direct investments in overburdened communities through the Environmental Justice for All Act and also is advocating for air quality monitoring in overburdened communities, she adds.
The Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P) is an important part of the solution to transportation emissions. TCI-P is a regional plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, and is expected to be a useful tool in improving air quality and driving investment in more equitable transportation options in the Northeast. The TCI-P is also one of the first major environmental policy plans in our region to emphasize environmental justice and the disproportionate air pollution Chelsea and other environmental justice communities face, although additional and complementary transportation policy solutions will also be needed to fully address historic and current inequities.
The TCI-P will require large gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase “allowances” for the pollution caused by the burning of fuels they sell. Auctioning the allowances will generate revenue every year that can be invested in equitable, less polluting, and more sustainable transportation options. If successful, the total number of emission allowances would decline each year, resulting in less transportation pollution, advocates say. Each state or district will decide how to invest program proceeds.
One component of the initiative—which 13 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia helped develop—would ensure that a set minimum portion of state revenue from selling credits to fuel suppliers be reinvested in environmental justice communities to improve transit and clean transportation, create parks, and lessen environmental pollution burdens.
“While 35 percent is the baseline target percentage included in the final model rule that came out recently, states have made it clear that 35 percent is just the floor,” Murray says. “In other words, states can and should invest more in these communities to make sure they’re seeing the benefits from this program, and AMC will be advocating for much higher investments as states like Massachusetts take up TCI-P enabling legislation.”
The TCI-P also includes the formation of equity advisory bodies in each state, made up of local stakeholders and environmental justice leaders, to review programs annually and ensure equity and justice are baked into the program goals.
AMC has supported the development of the TCI-P through advocating for greater involvement of environmental justice leaders and air quality monitoring in overburdened communities. Parallel to this work, AMC has been engaged in ensuring national air quality standards are set at levels that protect vulnerable communities. AMC has advocated for investing in increased mass transit through the TCI-P as part of the Our Transportation Future Coalition, and the Conservation Action Network has run a letter-writing campaign urging state governors to join.
“Whether this means more mass transit with improved access, better bike and walking paths, that’s all going to play out on the state level based on the needs in each state, and it will be important for all groups to be heard. We think it will be essential that a substantial portion of these funds are channeled into those the overburdened and underserved communities,” Murray says. “Investing in greater access to transit, as well as cleaner and healthier modes, are critical to improving public health and livable communities. This must be done with environmental justice communities in each state at the table, and with positive outcomes for these communities as the goal. We think TCI-P has the essential framework to achieve this and look forward to working with states and communities to ensure success.”
As programs like TCI-P promise reduced emissions and a significant step toward better access to clean transportation, GreenRoots continues pushing to ensure environmental justice is at the forefront of new policies and that the benefits reach all communities—especially the most vulnerable communities, like Chelsea.
“I’m sure that the impact of COVID in terms of people’s awareness of the relationship between bad environmental conditions and public health outcomes will sort of fade over time, but it’s a brick in the wall that builds up this understanding,” Walkey says. “It’s going to require continued advocacy and making people aware of just how dire the situation is for some of the folks that are living around you.”