Environmental justice must be at the center of recovery efforts
Last week, the Merrimack Valley suffered a catastrophic gas explosion resulting in extensive fire damage in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. The incident has been blamed on overpressurized gas lines that ran through the affected areas. One death has been reported, and more than 20 others have reported related injuries.
The aftermath of the event has been chaotic, as city and state officials grapple with the details of what occurred. Last Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency and directed another energy company, Eversource Energy, to lead the recovery—removing Columbia Gas as the primary service provider due to its initial response to the crisis.
Environmental injustice can be measured by the level of unequal access to healthy and clean environments. For this case, far more amenities could have been provided in terms of a more efficient response from Columbia during the crisis. What’s more important, though, are the preventative actions that utility companies can take to ensure safe systems for our residents and their homes.
As has already been reported, Columbia Gas has been fined tens of thousands of dollars by the state’s utilities regulator in recent years, and its corporate parent has been linked to serious blasts in other states. One of the communities that faced a similar gas explosion is Springfield, another community with a high concentration of Hispanics.
These issues are presented in a larger scope in a 2015 report by Northeastern University sociology professor Dr. Daniel Faber, who is the director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative. Faber found the Commonwealth has some of the most profound racial and class disparities with respect to the unequal exposure to ecological hazards that you will find anywhere in the United States. According to his research, communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed, while residents in these places lack access to not only healthy options but also the political clout and resources needed to fight back. Furthermore, “high-minority” communities face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous facilities and sites that is nearly nine times greater than that for “low-minority” communities. In a measure of how intensively overburdened different cities and towns are by hazardous environmental sites, Lawrence ranked 14th out of 368.
These patterns are national, with race and poverty being the two most critical demographic factors for determining where commercial hazardous waste facilities are located in the United States. With that in mind, the Northeastern report recommends that overburdened areas should be granted additional protections by the state, which include but are not limited to providing incentives for preventive behavior. Our communities do not deserve to be a dumping ground for corporations.
There is a stark difference between the needs of Lawrence residents and their neighbors in Andover and North Andover. Most affected in the latter are presumably homeowners, which may enable them to get compensation for damages through insurance. In Lawrence, many people rent and are less likely to have such protections in place due to more limited personal means. As such, a delay in recovery from a crisis of this magnitude is especially detrimental, with increased risks of insecurity at work and home for many residents, as well as delays in school services and revenue hits for our small businesses. The aftermath also involves residents dealing with displacement pressures and trauma.
Overall, these overpressurized gas lines—likely a result of neglect from a major gas company—have had a molotov effect on our community. The lack of transparency from Columbia Gas only added insult to injury.
There is hope. As shown by the volunteers who showed up at the Lawrence Senior Center to help the affected families within hours of the explosions, the residents of Lawrence know what it takes to make it through yet another day, another night. I am filled with pride for the strength of our first responders and know we can move forward, but we still deserve answers about what happened and about how we will prevent such a crisis from happening again. How will we ensure safety for all who live here?
We know that our public environment shapes our health and well-being, and addressing systemic racism and its effects on low-income people and people of color requires a long-term and multilayered process. Meanwhile, what are leaders in the Commonwealth doing to ensure that our communities get equal access to healthy and clean environments? Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who visited a command center in Lawrence on Friday, urged Congress to hold hearings on the disaster, saying regulators and executives from Columbia Gas must explain “how this incident occurred,” “and what must be done to ensure these types of dangerous accidents do not happen again.” I urge state officials to go one step further and look for solutions that include a focused lens on principles that address environmental justice concerns.
Let’s also amplify the work of grassroots organizations that care about these issues such as Groundwork Lawrence, and which empower people, businesses, and organizations to promote environmental, economic, and social well-being. As well as the Mass Sierra Club, which has called for more state regulatory oversight of gas and utility companies for years.
I hope our city’s future has clean air and safer spaces.
But today, the city of Lawrence can’t breathe.