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How One Massachusetts City Came To Bear Environmental Burdens For The Region

Robin Lubbock
Several industrial sites are located on the Chelsea Creek.

Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the consequences of climate change -- think New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. These areas suffer from poor air quality, increasing temperatures, and extreme weather.

In many of those same communities, residents already live among health hazards like fuel storage units and the toxic remains that come with them. In the city of Chelsea, Massachusetts, residents bear these burdens while much of New England benefits.

Standing along a three-mile stretch of the Chelsea Creek, Roseann Bongiovanni, a lifelong Chelsea resident, pointed out a few of the notable landmarks.

"That is the storage depot for 100 percent of the jet fuel that's used at Logan International Airport, 70 to 80 percent of the region's heating fuel -- so that's all of New England -- and road salt for 350 communities in the New England area," Bongiovanni said. 

Just down the way is the New England Produce Center, which in order to supply produce to all of New England, requires a steady stream of trucks coming in and out of the facility -- leaving behind emissions.

"So you'll see in Chelsea that we provide a lot of regional benefits but those burdens are on the backs, essentially, of Chelsea residents," Bongiovanni said.

Credit Robin Lubbock / WBUR
Roseann Bongiovanni is executive director of GreenRoots in Chelsea.

Bongiovanni heads up an environmental justice group called Green Roots. The organization engages community members in a city where almost 21 percent of the residents live below the poverty line and 60 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Chelsea resident Stephanie Alvarado, 17, is a member of the Green Roots ECO crew. The young people come together to learn more about the health and environmental hazards facing their city. The day we met, she and a fellow crew member were preparing for a community event to raise awareness about water quality in the creek.

For Alvarado, who's grown up in Chelsea, the work she does with Green Roots is personal.

"I have a lot of friends and family who do have asthma," Alvarado said. "It just sucks watching them walk for a long time and then having to pause and pull out their pump and just, you know take that medication. You know it's heartbreaking to see them having to go through that because of all the things that we are living in." 

Chelsea residents are living with things like air pollutants.

Credit Kathleen Dubos / WBUR
Stephanie Alvarado tests the water temperature of the Chelsea Creek as part of a Green Roots ECO Crew project.

Remember that massive pile of road salt that's stored along the creek? It eventually ends up spread across much of New England throughout the winter months. But that stagnant pile may release dust particles in the drier months, kicking up clouds of tiny pollutants that can aggravate chronic conditions like asthma. There's also the emissions from the convoy of trucks moving that salt during the winter months.

Daniel Faber is director of the Northeastern University Environmental Justice Research Collaborative. He's crunched some numbers and according to his findings, Chelsea is one of the most environmentally overburdened places in the state. 

"Communities that lack the political, economic power to defend themselves, where residents work longer hours, and they have less resources and are less educated, those are the communities that are often targeted for the siting of some of the most dangerous or ecologically hazardous facilities," Faber said.

In 1972, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act, setting up national policies to guide coastal development. Six years later, Massachusetts created Designated Port Areas, or DPAs.

These are places set aside to ensure industries dependent on waterways have a place to do business. Not every community, for example, is going to welcome the storage of jet fuel along a waterway. Establishment of DPAs concentrates these industries and guarantees access to businesses.

Many coastal New England states have policies around water uses, but nothing quite the same as the DPA classification. Perhaps it's not surprising then that so many of these environmental hazards ended up being stored along the Chelsea Creek, one of Massachusetts's ten designated port areas.

Credit Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
Chelsea Creek is a designated port area.

Back at the Green Roots office, Alvarado and the ECO crew spoke about materials they'll need for an upcoming event. Alvarado said learning more about the hazardous facilities in her community has been emotional.

"We have this creek but we don't have access to it," Alvarado said. "It hurt me. It just kind of confirmed that Chelsea is being taken advantage of -- and growing up in Chelsea you know, like, you could see that but I never really knew how true it was to that extent." 

Alvarado said after she graduates from high school, she wants to stay in Chelsea, working to make the city a healthier place to live.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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