Activists are heralding the new Massachusetts climate law as a crucial next step in the state’s fight against environmental justice, saying it marks a key change in the state’s approach to identifying which residents are the most burdened.

The expansive climate legislation, which was signed by Governor Charlie Baker last week, sets new goals on emissions and clean energy but its emphasis on environmental justice, supporters say, could prove to be transformative.

The law sets out new provisions for how communities can have a meaningful voice in how the state makes decisions on future infrastructure projects. The law makes clear that when approving new projects, the state must take into account how existing pollution levels have already impacted residents .

“For 20 years, we’ve been fighting to have this into law,” says María Belén Power, of the local nonprofit GreenRoots and a member of the White House’s new Environmental Justice Advisory Council who helped draft the legislation with other grassroots organizers.

Between the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning around structural racism and a warming world, she adds, “it’s very significant that Massachusetts finally has an environmental justice law”.

The law establishes a clear definition of a community overburdened by pollution – also known as an environmental justice (EJ) community. Advocates say this new definition, which is based on race, income, and English-language proficiency criteria, improves on the previous, sometimes fuzzy or confusing parameters used to locate the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Previously, per the state’s 2002 policy, an EJ community was defined as neighborhoods that meet any of the following criteria: median annual household income at or below 65% of state median, 25% minority residents, 25% foreign-born residents, or 25% non-English speakers.

Now, by simplifying the definition – and codifying it into state law – Massachusetts can ensure that any incoming administration must abide by these criteria, rather than establishing its own. This is significant, advocates like Belén Power say, because previously, the state primarily pushed environmental justice reform through executive orders.

“State agencies had the ability to say, we’ve already considered environmental justice and we think it aligns with the policy,” says Sofia Owen, a staff attorney for community-based organization Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which is a traditionally black neighborhood in Boston. “But the new bill adds more clarity and lays out more tools for the community to use to be able to participate the way that they should in these decisions.”

A clear definition of who is overburdened by pollution paves the way for the state to swiftly direct resources and take other action to combat said pollution. And now, Belén Power and Owen say, those efforts won’t be subject to change with the whims of a new administration.

“It was a definition that we spent a numerous amount of time working on,” says Staci Rubin, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, who helped craft the legislation. “It was really important to us to have a very simple demographic definition that didn’t require a neighborhood to prove that they’d been wronged just to be identified as an EJ population.”

The new bill would also raise barriers to fossil fuel projects in communities of color. In the past, when a state agency weighed whether to approve a pipeline, highway or another big project, it took a narrow view of potential environmental burdens; it only assessed whether the pollution from the upcoming project would exceed state law, and did not take into account any background pollution.

Now, the pollution impacts of new projects won’t be considered in isolation: Under the new law, agencies will be required to look at total or “cumulative impacts” – how any pollution from a proposed project adds to already-existing pollution – before granting permits to projects that potentially pose a threat to human health or the environment.

Take a controversial electrical substation project on the banks of Massachussets’s Chelsea Creek, whose body of water cuts through the Chelsea and East Boston neighborhoods. In massive tanks and open lots along the banks of the creek are the storage depots for 100% of Logan Airport’s jet fuel, as much as 80% of the New England region’s heating fuel, and road salt for hundreds of cities and towns. Surrounding the waterfront are scrap metal facilities and parking lots for the airport. “If you look at things individually, it may not seem like a big impact,” Belén Power says.“ But if you look at the cumulative impact that our communities have, it’s pretty significant.”

After years of fierce community opposition, the electrical substation received its final approval last month.

The law is a forward looking one, so it can’t stop any facility that’s already approved to operate. But “it does specifically direct agency resources and attention to environmental justice, which could result in funding for renewable energy, green spaces, better transportation, among other things,” says Owen.

The new legislation would also establish an environmental justice advisory council. According to Owen, the majority of people on the council are supposed to be people from environmental justice communities, giving decision-making power back to historically sidelined communities.

“It’s really creating a specific voice for people impacted first and worst,” she says.

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