State Denies Equal Access to Public Hearings

Community organizations file civil rights complaint charging Commonwealth with national origin discrimination

The waterfront site near the dangerous electric substation proposed by Eversource in the Eagle Hill community in East Boston. The jet fuel tanks and other infrastructure in the background highlight the need for climate justice in this community.

Eversource wants to build a new substation in East Boston's Eagle Hill neighborhood. Local residents – many of whom have limited proficiency in English –oppose the plan, but the State has made it hard for them to take part in the public process by refusing to provide adequate translation services at meetings. Photo: Ed Lyons, CC BY-NA 2.0

June 1, 2020 (BOSTON, MA) – Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), GreenRoots and Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) have filed a Title VI civil rights complaint against Massachusetts energy agencies after officials failed to provide proper translation and interpretation services in proceedings regarding a proposed electrical project that would have catastrophic implications for low-income communities of color in East Boston and Chelsea. State officials treated demands for interpretation as disruptive, effectively shutting out participation from the area’s many Spanish-speaking residents.

“For me and my neighbors this project will impact where we live and where our children play, and yet none of us had any idea that this project was going on,” stated Noemy Rodriguez, a Community Organizer with local Environmental Justice organization GreenRoots. Continuing in her native Spanish the eight-year resident of East Boston added, “Even when we did get engaged in the process, interpretation to a language we could understand was either poorly done or not done at all. It all seemed so unimportant to them; they did not take us into consideration.”

First proposed in 2014, Eversource’s East Eagle Reliability project would construct two new underground transmission lines through Boston, Everett, and Chelsea connecting with a new substation in East Boston. The line would run through environmental justice communities whose density, pollution, and high rates of poverty have left residents exposed to public health crises like COVID-19. The proposed project would put them at even greater risk, with the high-voltage electric substation across from a playground, close to a densely packed residential neighborhood, in an area on the banks of the Chelsea Creek highly susceptible to catastrophic flooding.

“Preventing residents from commenting on a project that will have enormous impacts on their community is not only shameful but a form of discrimination,” said Amy Laura Cahn, Director of CLF’s Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program. “East Boston and Chelsea already experience some of the worst air quality and pollution in the state and adding yet another industrial facility will only compound these injustices. State leaders need to be held accountable for silencing community concerns to push this project through.”

“The very state agencies responsible for environmental and community protection have for years ignored residents’ demands to be included in the planning process, neglecting to translate vital documents or extend comment periods to allow non-English speaking residents to contribute,” said Lauren Sampson, attorney and coordinator of LCR’s Race & Climate Justice Project. “We cannot exclude these communities from environmental decision-making processes while asking them to bear these environmental and health burdens.”

The complaint requests that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigate the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board and its parent agencies, the Department of Public Utilities and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, for their failure to comply with federal laws ensuring equal access for limited English proficient speakers. The complaint urges the EPA to halt the review of the proposed substation, pending this investigation into the Board’s language access policies and practices and until the present state of emergency has been lifted.

The complaint can be found here.

Experts are available for further comment in English and Spanish.