Maura Healey has been governor for less than a month, but she’s already made it clear that she plans to make environmental issues a top priority. Among other things, she’s called for Massachusetts to “lead the world” in its response to climate change, created a first-in-the nation cabinet-level climate chief position to tackle the problem, and promised to make climate innovation a linchpin of the state’s economy.
According to some of Massachusetts’ more aggressive environmental advocates, though, Healey still needs to do much more — and to do it quickly. They want her to intervene to stop several projects that advanced under her predecessor, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, and cast her willingness to do so as a test of how deep her commitment to environmental transformation really is.
In one of those projects — known as the Western Massachusetts Natural Gas Reliability Project — the energy provider Eversource plans to build a new, five-mile pipeline linking an existing station in Springfield to a yet-to-be-constructed facility in Longmeadow. That proposal, which has already elicited strong local opposition, has yet to receive a final go-ahead from state regulators. But two other controversial projects in Eastern Massachusetts are much further along.
East Boston’s substation
On a recent weekday morning, about three dozen activists gathered across the street from a new electrical substation under construction on Condor Street in East Boston — across the street from the American Legion playground, next door to a Boston Police station and a literal stone’s throw from Chelsea Creek. The facility, which will distribute electricity for residential and business use in East Boston, is being built by Eversource, which says it’s needed to accommodate growing demand and ensure reliable service.
Opponents, though, contend the project should be relocated to nearby Logan Airport, which they claim will use a significant amount of the energy it provides. They also warn that the substation’s current proximity to water creates a perpetual flood risk, and say that if new construction to safeguard the site is required in the future — a scenario state regulators have already discussed — Eversource’s customers will end up footing the bill.
In addition, they cast the state’s approval of the substation as the latest in a long line of environmental indignities visited on the residents of East Boston.
“To put critical electrical infrastructure in a flood zone next to a creek next to 8 million gallons of jet fuel — that makes total sense to them,” said John Walkey, the director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at the Chelsea-based advocacy group GreenRoots, addressing the crowd and an assortment of local media through a megaphone as traffic from Logan roared overhead. “It makes no sense to the people here. It is not fair to the people who live here.
“We need to be planning for the future, and that’s what Maura Healey ran on,” Walkey continued. “That’s why she has a secretary in a new position on climate resiliency. That’s why there’s a focus on climate and adaptation, mitigation. Those same principles should be applied to this project now, before it is built — not after.”
Walkey also noted that, as attorney general, Healey voiced dismay when state regulators gave the substation a key approval in 2021, tweeting: “There was no energy justice today.” (A number of other elected officials, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, have also condemned to the project.)
In a separate interview with GBH News, Walkey acknowedged that, from a regulatory standpoint, the substation approval process has largely run its course. Still, he argued, Healey could try to use her political clout to broker a solution that respects the concerns of Boston residents, more than 80% of whom opposed the project in a nonbinding 2021 ballot question.
“We need to be planning for the future, and that’s what Maura Healey ran on.”
John Walkey, the director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at GreenRoots
“We feel the governor, who is really the only person that has any sway over Massport, could bring Massport to table and say, ‘Listen, let’s take a look at what the community’s saying. Is it true that a lot of this is for your use? And is there space here that we could move this over to?’” Walkey said.
While Walkey admits that such a solution would likely be costly to the state, he adds that the cost will only increase as construction advances, and that the cost of a relocation decades from now would be greater still.
“This is the moment,” Walkey said. “It needs to happen fast.”
The Healey administration is facing similar demands from opponents of the so-called Peabody peaker plant, a new natural gas and oil-burning facility currently being built in that North Shore community.
The Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company, which is constructing the plant, says it will only run a few hundred hours a year, at times when electricity is in especially high demand, and that the project cleared multiple regulatory hurdles before it received the state’s imprimatur. Here, too, the project’s backers say it will ensure the reliable delivery of power.
But the peaker plant’s detractors note that the state’s regulatory processes are now far more rigorous than when the project originated in 2015 — a point opponents of the East Boston substation make as well.
Given that shift, the peaker plant’s opponents argue, the Healey administration should try to halt construction until the project’s health impacts receive the same scrutiny they would if it originated today.
“We’re going to continue to ask the same of our new governor that we asked of Gov. Baker,” said Susan Smoller, a Peabody resident and activist with the group Breathe Clean North Shore. “And that has consistently been, we would like … that a comprehensive health impact assessment be conducted.”
Smoller notes that, according to a study commissioned by the Massachusetts Climate Action Network and released in November 2022, communities located within about 1.5 miles of the peaker site already have a significantly higher rate of several ailments than the general population, including stroke, chronic kidney disease, coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer.
While opponents of the Peabody project cite those existing health inequities as reason to pause the project, they also make a broader argument: at a moment when Massachusetts is trying to reduce its long-term dependence on fossil fuels, they say, building new facilities that perpetuate that dependence is nonsensical.
“We’ve heard a lot about how they really want to take their time, and take months to evaluate what’s going on across different agencies and chart out next steps,” said Mireille Bejjani, the co-executive director of the regional environmental nonprofit Slingshot. “[But] the reality is that a lot of these projects just can’t wait that long for a decision, because of how time sensitive they are.
“Every day that goes by, that [Peabody] construction project gets closer to being completed,” Bejjani added. “And once it’s done, it’s a lot harder to put on the brakes and take a closer look and make sure it actually is a good idea for Peabody and the entire state.”
Logan Malik, the interim executive director of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, said that group is currently preparing a formal request to the Healey administration to halt work on the Peabody peaker plant until more information is gathered, and that the East Boston and Western Mass. project should also be revisited.
“The prior administration didn’t prioritize environmental justice in the way we needed,” Malik said. “What we’re really hoping for, from the Healey administration, is that even though she’s not responsible for a lot of [ongoing work], she’ll recognize retroactively that decisions that were made are unjust — and take whatever action is available legally, in the case of the Peabody peaker plant, to halt construction.”
But while some activists, like Bejjani and Malik, describe themselves as cautiously optimistic when it comes to what Healey’s stance and next steps, others are less sanguine.
After the rally in East Boston, Alex Chambers, a member of the group Extinction Rebellion, balked when asked if he sees Healey as an environmental ally, citing a statement Healey issued after protesters at the substation were arrested recently. In that statement, Healey said she was “disappointed” in the way the project had unfolded and promised to work to reform the siting process in the future.
“We keep having this persistent problem where it’s always, ‘Oh, the next project, the next project,’” Chambers said.
“Her being an ally is her putting her skin into the game on this,” Chambers added. “It’s not just tweeting saying, ‘This is bad,’ but it’s following through. … Take action! You are the head of government. You have more power than any other person in this state to address these issues.”
In a statement provided to GBH News, though, a spokesperson for the governor suggested that Healey remains focused on future changes rather than current projects that predated her administration.
“The Governor is disappointed in the processes behind the East Eagle Substation and Peabody Peaker and is committed to reforming the energy facility siting process,” Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said via email. “We will work directly with these communities going forward and maintain open lines of communication so we can engage earlier in the process.”