The General Court, the Governor, and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) are proposing, and will likely adopt, significant changes to Massachusetts’ environmental justice (EJ) policy.
Most recently, on February 10, 2021, the EOEEA proposed a MEPA Interim Protocol for Environmental Justice Outreach that enhances and expands outreach to EJ populations during environmental review of new projects. On February 7, Governor Baker returned S. 9, a monumental climate bill titled “An Act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy,” to the General Court, with a letter suggesting amendments to strengthen the climate bill, including its EJ provisions. This was in response to the General Court’s passage of the bill on January 28 with a veto-proof margin after Governor Baker had “pocket vetoed” the same bill for various reasons at the end of the last legislative session. Sections 55 through 60 of the climate bill amend the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, M.G.L. c. 30, §§ 61-62H (MEPA), to incorporate new provisions to promote environmental justice in the Commonwealth.
Governor Baker’s changes would include “climate change” within the definition of the “environmental burdens” that would need to be studied in the MEPA process. He also suggested broadening the applicability of the new EJ requirements to all projects subject to MEPA review, not simply those that are “not insignificant.” This change would not only require compliance with the new EJ policies in filings of Environmental Impact Reports, but in all MEPA filings, including Environmental Notification Forms. Finally, Governor Baker proposes to require the MassDEP to incorporate review of cumulative impact analysis in its permitting processes, as follows:
The department of environmental protection shall evaluate and seek public comment on the incorporation of cumulative impact analysis in the assessment and identification of certain categories of permits and approvals. Not later than 18 months after the effective date of this act, the department of environmental protection shall propose regulations to include cumulative impact analysis for defined categories of air quality permits identified through the evaluation and public comment process.
Governor Baker did not suggest changes to any of the other core EJ provisions of the bill. In summary, if passed in its current form, the new bill will significantly alter the environmental review process for many projects located in or near an EJ population and will likely require significant new project mitigation to offset historical environmental burdens suffered by such populations. At the core of the bill is the definition of “environmental justice principles,” which are:
principles that support protection from environmental pollution and the ability to live in and enjoy a clean and healthy environment, regardless of race, color, income, class, handicap, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnicity or ancestry, religious belief or English language proficiency, which includes: (i) the meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies, including climate change policies; and (ii) the equitable distribution of energy and environmental benefits and environmental burdens.
The new bill will require an environmental impact report for any project that is likely to cause damage to the environment and that is located within a distance of one mile (or for projects that will impact air quality, five miles) of an EJ population. An EJ population means any neighborhood where: (i) the annual median household income is less than 65 per cent of the statewide annual median household income ($81,215 in 2019); (ii) minorities comprise 40 per cent or more of the population; (iii) 25 per cent or more of households lack English language proficiency; or (iv) minorities comprise 25 per cent or more of the population and the annual median household income of the municipality in which the neighborhood is located does not exceed 150 per cent of the statewide annual median household income. There is also provision for ten residents of a portion of a neighborhood to petition the Secretary for EJ population status of such portion.
Such environmental impact reports must assess “any existing unfair or inequitable environmental burden and related public health consequences impacting the environmental justice population from any prior or current private, industrial, commercial, state, or municipal operation or project that has damaged the environment” based on guidelines established by the Secretary.
If the assessment indicates an environmental justice population is subject to an existing unfair or inequitable environmental burden or related health consequence the report shall identify any: (i) environmental and public health impact from the proposed project that would likely result in a disproportionate adverse effect on such population; and (ii) potential impact or consequence from the proposed project that would increase or reduce the effects of climate change on the environmental justice population.
The new legislation would also eliminate any current exclusions from the requirement to prepare an environmental impact report for projects affecting an EJ population: “No agency shall exempt from an environmental impact report any project that is located in a neighborhood that has an environmental justice population and is reasonably likely to cause damage to the environment, as defined in section 61.” The only exception would be for emergency actions.
The bill would also add significantly to the enhanced public participation requirements contained in the current EOEEA Environmental Justice Policy (the 2017 EJ Policy) by requiring the Secretary of the EOEEA to improve access for public participation by the EJ population during the MEPA review process. Enhanced public participation requires appropriate measures such as: (i) making public notices, environmental notification forms, environmental impact reports, and other key documents related to the secretary’s review and decisions of a project review available in English and any other language spoken by a significant number of the affected environmental justice population; (ii) providing translation services at public meetings for a significant portion of an affected environmental justice population that lacks English proficiency in the project’s designated geographic area; (iii) requiring public meetings be held in accessible locations that are near public transportation; (iv) providing appropriate information about the project review procedure for the proposed project; and (v) where feasible, establishing a local repository for project review documents, notices and decisions.
The new legislation would impose on the Secretary an additional standard for approval of an environmental impact report for a project, requiring the Secretary to “consider the environmental justice principles … in making any policy or determination, or taking any action relating to a project review … to reduce the potential for unfair or inequitable effects upon an environmental justice population.” Moreover, the law would require the Secretary to impose similar requirements on all EOEEA agencies: “To further the environmental justice principles the secretary shall direct its agencies, including the departments, divisions, boards and offices under the secretary’s control and authority, to consider the environmental justice principles in making any policy, determination or taking any other action related to a project review, or in undertaking any project … that is likely to affect environmental justice populations.”
Environmental justice is rooted in Article 97 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which guarantees that:
The 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.
The EOEEA laid the groundwork for this new legislation in 2002 when it formulated the agency-wide Environmental Justice Policy that made environmental justice “an integral consideration” to all EOEEA programs, “including but not limited to, the grant of financial resources, the promulgation, implementation and enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies, and the provision of access to both active and passive open space.” In 2014, Governor Patrick issued Executive Order No. 552, establishing a Director of Environmental Justice within the EOEEA and creating the Governor’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which the new legislation carries forward.
This new bill would mark the first time these EJ provisions have been implemented by legislative rather than executive action, a significant development that will ensure consistent implementation going forward regardless of what administration controls the executive branch. And, by amending the MEPA process, the new legislation ensures that EJ principles will be considered for all state agency actions, not just actions within the EOEEA.
Meanwhile, assuming that it becomes effective, the EOEEA’s proposed Interim Protocol will advance several of the climate bill’s EJ goals. (The EOEEA appears to be on a much shorter timeline for adopting the proposed Protocol than the Governor’s 180-day timeline for adopting amendments to the MEPA regulations incorporating the EJ changes.)
Under the Protocol, all new projects filing with the MEPA Office will be subject to new pre-filing requirements, starting with identifying the location of the project relative to EJ populations on a mapping tool. If any portion of the project site is located within an EJ population (as defined in the 2017 EJ Policy), the Proponent is required to consult with the MEPA Office at least 10 days prior to filing to determine an appropriate EJ outreach strategy. According to the Protocol:
[i]n most cases, such strategy shall include, at a minimum, conducting outreach to local EJ groups and, if “English Isolation” (limited English proficiency) is indicated on the mapping tool as an identifying feature of the EJ population, offering, to the extent practicable, translation and interpretation services in languages spoken by a significant portion of the population. These language service requirements shall apply to notices, documents and community meetings that pertain to the proposed project.
The MEPA Office will consider the potential need for enhanced outreach to EJ neighborhoods during the course of MEPA review for any project that must file a mandatory environmental impact report. The Interim Protocol supplements the 2017 EJ Policy, which remains in effect for all projects to which its requirements apply.
With the climate bill back in the General Court to consider Governor Baker’s suggested amendments, and the EOEEA circulating the Interim Protocol for comment on a short time line, these or other major shifts in the Commonwealth’s approach to environmental justice will soon become a reality.
For any questions about how these legislative changes may affect your project, contact the attorneys at Mackie Shea Durning, P.C.
 A table showing the principal differences between the 2017 Environmental Justice Policy of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the EJ provision in S.9 l can be accessed here.