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State energy board greenlights East Boston substation, enraging environmental justice advocates

The Boston Globe 11/30/2022 Dharna Noor
Activists with Extinction Rebellion Boston handed out fliers about the East Boston Substation as they blocked the entrance to the Energy and Environmental Affairs office in an August 2021 protest. © Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff Activists with Extinction Rebellion Boston handed out fliers about the East Boston Substation as they blocked the entrance to the Energy and Environmental Affairs office in an August 2021 protest.

INTO THE RED: Climate and the fight of our lives

A decision from the state board responsible for approving electricity projects could soon allow the construction of a highly contentious electrical substation in East Boston.

At a Tuesday hearing, Massachusetts’ Energy Facilities Siting Board announced it will grant the utility Eversource a special certificate allowing it to circumvent the 14 final state and local environmental permits needed for the project.

The siting board’s decision, which confirmed a preliminary one earlier this month, was nearly unanimous, with only one no vote: Crystal Johnson, an environmental planner who serves as the board’s public member representing the environment.

The decision outraged environmental justice advocates who have bitterly opposed the substation, arguing the facility will pose risks to a community already overburdened by pollution. It has become one of the most hotly contested infrastructure proposals in the state since Eversource proposed building it eight years ago, garnering opposition from the likes of Representatives Ayanna Pressley and US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.

‘The project is idiotic’: East Boston residents encourage city authorities to derail substation proposal

Opponents have raised doubts about whether the project is truly necessary for electric reliability and say the utility didn’t properly consider other sites for the project.

“This decision is extremely disheartening and disappointing, particularly after years of experts and community members voicing serious concerns,” Paula García, a senior energy analyst and energy justice lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an e-mail.

Set to be constructed along the banks of Chelsea Creek in the populous Eagle Hill community, the substation would convert high-voltage electricity from transmission lines to a lower voltage so it can be distributed into people’s homes.

Eversource first proposed the substation in 2014. The siting board approved it three years later, but required that the company consider moving the facility slightly — a request that Eversource met in 2018.

The board re-approved the project in February 2021, but Eversource still lacked 14 necessary permits. Arguing that some of those permits were “unduly delayed and unreasonably conditioned,” the utility appealed to the siting board earlier this year for the ability to bypass those final permits. In its decision Tuesday, the siting board agreed.

Eversource applauded the decision. It says the project, which it first proposed more than eight years ago, is necessary to maintain electric reliability amid increasing demand, especially during summer months when energy usage tends to peak.

“The East Eagle substation will directly benefit our customers in East Boston and Chelsea,” Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Eversource, said in an e-mail.

But critics are concerned about the site’s proximity to the increasingly flood-prone Chelsea Creek, which they fear could lead to an explosion or fire. That’s especially troubling, they say, because the substation would be located close to the storage area for Logan Airport’s jet fuel, and directly across the street from a playground.

Opponents also note that East Boston, a neighborhood that meets the state’s official qualifications for an Environmental Justice Community, is already shouldering environmental risks: It is home to polluting projects including Logan, several major highways, and manufacturing plants along Chelsea Creek. Approving the project, they argue, violates environmental justice policies codified in 2021′s Massachusetts Climate Roadmap Law.

“The facility does not result in the equitable distribution of burdens and benefits,” said Staci Rubin, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, who has been representing her organization and the environmental justice group GreenRoots in an effort to stop the substation, at Tuesday’s meeting.

State board OK’s controversial East Boston substation; foes vow to appeal

Eversource, for its part, has said the substation’s design exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards and that the project would be built to withstand 500-year floodwaters. And it says East Boston is currently the only neighborhood in the city without an electric substation, meaning it is reliant on power supplied by a substation in Chelsea that is at capacity without room to expand, putting residents at risk of power outages.

Andrew Greene, director of the siting board, said he understands the community’s worry.

“There is no energy project that has ever been built that doesn’t have some environmental impacts,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting, but he added that those risks have been “substantially minimized and mitigated,” and are outweighed by the benefits.

But John Walkey, director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at GreenRoots, said while the substation will benefit Eversource’s shareholders, it will put locals at risk — especially since the project will be funded by the utility’s ratepayers at a time when electric bills are rising.

GreenRoots and the Conservation Law Foundation plan to issue an appeal. And García, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she hopes Governor-elect Maura Healey — who has been critical of the substation — can find a way to stop it once she gets into office.

“The fight isn’t over yet,” said García.

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