The state agency responsible for approving energy projects appears set to allow utility Eversource to bypass the 14 remaining environmental permits it needs for a controversial substation in East Boston.
In a draft decision released this week, the state’s power plant siting committee says it recommends approval of a special certificate “to ensure the substation can be built to meet a need.” immediate additional electrical resources to maintain reliable service in the Chelsea/East Boston Area.”
The council will make a final decision on whether to grant the so-called certificate of environmental impact and public interest after a public hearing scheduled for later this month.
Eversource, which first proposed the project more than 8 years ago, applauds the tentative decision.
“Electricity demand in East Boston continues to grow, necessitating the construction of new infrastructure that will support growth for years to come,” company spokesman Christopher McKinnon wrote. in an email.
Electrical substations are an essential part of the energy system. The one proposed for East Boston would take high-voltage electricity from a transmission line running under Chelsea Creek and “step down” it to a lower voltage so it could be sent through overhead wires and into people’s homes.
But while substations are ubiquitous and necessary, the one in East Boston has drawn a lot of opposition and has become one of the most controversial energy projects in the state. Those trying to stop the facility have long argued that it violates state environmental justice policy, questioned whether it is really necessary for electrical reliability, and claimed that building it near the flood-prone banks of Chelsea Creek and in front of a popular playground is a danger to public safety.
John Walkey, director of Waterfront & Climate Justice Initiatives at GreenRoots, the Chelsea-based environmental nonprofit leading the fight against the substation, calls the interim decision “really infuriating, but not necessarily unexpected”.
Walkey says he assumed the board would rule in favor of Eversource, but actually reading the 200-plus-page draft decision feels like a “punch.” In fact, he clarifies, it feels like “a bit like a second punch” – last Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the decision of the Energy Facilities Siting Board 2021 to approve the project despite the problems raised by GreenRoots about environmental justice.
As WBUR previously reported, many East Boston and Chelsea residents say they didn’t hear about the project until the approvals process was well underway, and even then they don’t. weren’t given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the public comment period because of language barrier issues.
“This project continues to roll through this system despite the number of valid, common-sense concerns that have been raised by residents, by advocates, by elected officials,” Valkey said.
He adds that in the years since his group began fighting the project, the concept of environmental justice has evolved from “a niche advocacy movement to something that most people are aware of now and they talk about, especially in the context of climate change and its impacts.”
And yet, according to him, the Energy Facilities Siting Board has not kept pace and changed the way it operates and evaluates projects.
Staci Rubin, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation who represented GreenRoots in its fight to shut down the substation, agrees. She writes in an email that the interim decision “unfortunately reinforces and perpetuates the status quo by failing to address community concerns” and that it “illustrates the critical and urgent need for reform of laws and regulations regarding installation of energy installations”.
Eversource first proposed to build the substation in 2014 as part of a larger power project for the East Boston, Chelsea and Everett area. The siting committee approved Eversource’s proposal in 2017 on the condition that the company consider moving the facility about 200 feet to the west. Eversource filed the project change in 2018, and after a lengthy and contentious process, the board approved it in February 2021.
With this approval in hand, Eversource set out to obtain the remaining 14 environmental permits it still needed. According to the company, some of these permitting agencies “unduly delayed and unreasonably conditioned” their approval, so the company appealed to the state site board last February to obtain the environmental certificate of replacement.
In the draft decision, the site committee says it carefully reviewed the project proposal and concluded that if the substation is not built, East Boston and Chelsea may have problems meeting demand. of peak electricity in the summer as early as 2024. The council also concluded that there is no “viable alternative” to Eversource’s chosen location, and was keen to say that it followed all environmental justice requirements” applicable” when taking this decision.
The siting committee “concludes that the environmental and energy benefits of the substation outweigh the burdens, and that the certificate meets the needs and convenience of the public,” the interim decision reads.
We’re not against substations and electrical reliability, says Walkey. But the question is whether this land in East Boston is the best location for such a facility.
“And from an environmental justice perspective, it all comes down to costs, burdens and benefits,” he says. “Who bears this burden? Who pays the cost? And then who benefits from all this?
If the final certificate is granted later this month, Walkey says GreenRoots will appeal the decision. And in the meantime, he hopes Governor-elect Maura Healey will help find a way to stop the project once she takes office in January.