City councilor and state Sen. Lydia Edwards on the planned electrical substation in East Boston and the proposal to halt its construction
Eversource’s proposed high-voltage electric substation in East Boston is immensely unpopular—in a 2021 nonbinding ballot measure, more than 80% of city residents opposed the project.
East Boston is considered an environmental justice neighborhood by the state, and a majority of its residents are people of color. The substation would be located in a flood-prone area, next to a large jet fuel storage facility, and across the street from a playground.
But despite opposition from the community and local politicians, including Mayor Michelle Wu, former Mayor Kim Janey, Rep. Ayana Pressley, and Sen. Ed Markey, the project recently received final approval from the state.
Newly elected state senator and current Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards is on a quest to change that. She recently announced a proposal to halt the project through a home-rule petition. The proposal is to write environmental justice standards into the city’s zoning and building code, which would affect both existing and newly constructed buildings.
Such a move would also prevent utility companies such as Eversource from bypassing Boston zoning laws, which they are currently allowed to do as a so-called public service corporation.
I recently spoke with the senator-elect about her proposal and the ongoing fight.
“I want a process that assesses climate change, that assesses community needs, racial justice, and really acknowledges the evolving standards for keeping our energy cleaner and our neighborhoods healthier,” Edwards said. “And I think the Boston Zoning Commission can come up with that evolving standard. The DPU [Department of Public Utilities] clearly hasn’t.”
Edwards hopes this new rule will inspire other communities to make similar changes to their municipal zoning rules. “Hopefully a lot of them look to this and say, OK, yeah, actually we should be also including environmental justice standards in our zoning,” Edwards said.
She added that Eversource’s insistence on pushing through the East Boston site has more to do with sending a message than any logistical constraints.
“I think they’re adamant about being right, because if they can be checked, it’ll set a precedent that allows for more people and more communities to feel empowered to push back,” Edwards said. “They essentially can’t afford to lose, because people will then see this as an opportunity and a roadmap to check and counter their power.
“This is a power play.”
Community advocates have complained about a lack of transparency and adequate translation services for residents throughout the process. Local environmental justice organization GreenRoots sued the EPA for violating the Civil Rights Act after they declined to investigate these claims.
When the city finally held a public hearing with Eversource representatives, Edwards said the company seemed “very annoyed to even have to answer questions of the average person who’s going to be impacted by their permanent infrastructure in our neighborhood.”
Edwards called Eversource’s thinking “incredibly outdated,” and doesn’t believe that they considered community needs, the impacts of climate change, or alternative sources of energy throughout the process.
At the same time, Edwards is optimistic about getting her rule passed through the Boston City Council and signed by Mayor Wu, who has been vocal in her opposition to the substation.
If it passes through the city government, it then will head to Beacon Hill.
“That’s another battle,” Edwards said. “And of course, when it goes to the State House, the utility companies will be calling up my colleagues in the State House who aren’t necessarily part of the Boston delegation to kill it.”
If the bill clears the state legislature, it will then need the governor’s signature to become law (notwithstanding a favorable supermajority). The state is currently in the midst of a wide-open governor’s race, with incumbent Republican Charlie Baker not running for reelection.
“There is not one elected official that has ever supported this damn substation,” Edwards added. “There is no political or moral will for this freaking substation. This is literally Eversource — they’re alone on an island.”
Edwards speculated that under current law, of all political entities in the state, Baker has the most power to kill the project. It seems likely that the outcome of the November gubernatorial election will have large implications on the fate of the project.