Two days before Thanksgiving, Governor Patrick gave environmental justice advocates something to be truly thankful for – he issued an executive order on environmental justice.
Executive Order 552 is one of only a handful of executive orders addressing environmental justice in the country. And while Governor Patrick’s action was historic, the real heroes are the grassroots advocates and community-based organizations that put sustained pressure on the governor to take action.
The new executive order updates some of the requirements set forth in Massachusetts’ 2002 Environmental Justice Policy. But there are some important distinctions, not least among them that the executive order applies to the entire executive branch and not merely the environmental agencies under the purview of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Under the Order, every secretariat must develop a strategy to promote environmental justice. So for the first time, agencies like Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development will be asked to harness their full potential to promote environmental justice. This is groundbreaking on the national stage, not just in Massachusetts.
The Order requires a number of actions within 14, 60, and 180 days of its signing – most occurring in the early days of Governor-Elect Baker’s term. This could be consternation-inducing for advocates who worry that the deadlines will not be met, as well as for newly appointed state officials just getting to know their jobs. Alleviating some of that stress, the Order calls for the empanelment of an Environmental Justice Advisory Council whose role will be to advise the new gubernatorial administration on the implementation of the Order.
Executive Order 552 is not just a victory for low-income communities and communities of color across the Commonwealth. It is a victory for everyone. Finally, residents of Massachusetts can dare to believe that the lofty ideal articulated in Article 97 of the state constitution is more than well-chosen words – that indeed, “[t]he 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; and the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is hereby declared to be a public purpose.”
At the close of 2014, we can reflect back on a year of tremendous accomplishments, headlined by the signing of Executive Order 552. With any luck, the stage has been set for an equally remarkable 2015.