Gov. Charlie Baker is asking the Massachusetts Legislature to approve a $9.7 billion transportation and environmental infrastructure bond bill to help build bridges, roads and railways across the commonwealth. But some advocates worry the state is not taking the steps necessary to ensure such projects don’t do undue harm to low-income or minority communities.

A year ago, the state adopted its landmark bill to combat climate change, requiring — among other policies — the creation of an Environmental Justice Advisory Council. It was designed to advise the administration on the environmental justice impacts of its policies, including those governing large infrastructure proposals. The 2021 Climate Roadmap Law created the council specifically to help the state define the demographics of an environmental justice population: neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by environmental issues like pollution, flooding and extreme heat.

But the council hasn’t been formed, so it can’t advise on the billions in infrastructure projects.

“What is the point of having a law, of having won this huge victory, of having a definition of environmental justice and these requirements, if they’re actually not being implemented?” said María Belén Power, the associate executive director at GreenRoots Chelsea, an environmental group that helped push the roadmap legislation forward. “The bond bill is absolutely one of those opportunities that the commonwealth has to really decide: how do we invest in environmental justice communities and ensure that we are not providing benefits to wealthier communities while putting the burdens on Black and brown communities?”

Baker’s proposed bond bill aims to leverage federal funds for large infrastructure projects like public transit. The Baker administration said the projects it’s looking to back have a particular focus on “climate change mitigation, resiliency, equity, and safety for all users.” But environmental justice advocates who helped rally support for parts of the 2021 roadmap legislation, like Belén Power, say that to follow through on that vision, the government should consult with the council on potential projects and concentrate more of those investments in areas the state defines as environmental justice communities.

“Chelsea and East Boston are surrounded by highways and tunnels and also have an incredible need for investment in public transit,” she said. “The need to ensure that the EJ council is created so that it informs these investments is absolutely critical.”

In addition to helping the state define environmental justice populations, the council is expected to advise the administration on how it considers the environmental impact to those populations in state policy decisions. The infrastructure bond bill presents an opportunity for the council’s input, particularly for portions managed by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), said Staci Rubin, the vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation. “It would be great for the EJ Advisory Council to be able to make some recommendations for how that money gets allocated,” she said.

Baker has made no appointments to the council, though advocates say a handful of people have been contacted about possibly joining the board. Baker’s budget requests in the last two years included no specific spending to help create the group, though for the next fiscal year he requested $332,014 for the EEA to implement its environmental justice strategy and “promote and secure environmental justice.”

Plans to form the council appear to be inching forward. In January, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides told lawmakers in a legislative hearing that appointees to the advisory council were undergoing background checks and “should be announced imminently.” In February, an EEA spokesperson told GBH News that the administration is working to finalize members of the council but did not respond to a request for further detail on the timeline. A few days later, GBH News obtained a copy of a background check form sent by the governor’s office to a council candidate on February 11, asking for a prompt response.

Without a council, those who advocated for the legislation say there are gaps in how the state assesses environmental justice impacts.

“At the state level, at the city level across the state, as well as in traditional environmental organizations, there’s a real deep desire to address equity concerns and better protect environmental justice communities. … People just don’t know how to do it,” said Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, a Boston-based consultant who currently serves on the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — and who advocates have suggested for the council. “That’s a real important part of what this advisory council would do, is provide that kind of guidance that’s not yet there in the agencies right now.”

Changes to EEA policy are already underway, with a push to consider and include environmental justice populations in new projects. Following an update to its environmental justice policy last June, its agencies will be required to strengthen consultation with environmental justice communities, assess the environmental impacts of new projects and existing facilities in those communities as well as evaluate potential investment in environmental justice neighborhoods. The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office, under the EEA, recently published interim guidance requiring that large projects planned near environmental justice communities assess a variety of impacts prior to construction. EEA told GBH News that developers have since proposed 15 projects that require such assessment, but those reviews are still in initial stages.

Advocates say the Environmental Justice Advisory Council would add to those efforts, giving communities a line to the administration to voice their views on projects that could impact their neighborhoods.

"What is the point of having a law, of having won this huge victory, of having a definition of environmental justice and these requirements, if they're actually not being implemented?"
María Belén Power, the associate executive director at GreenRoots Chelsea

Even before the roadmap bill, the formation of the council was years overdue. Former Gov. Deval Patrick originally signed an executive order in 2014 calling for the creation of an environmental justice council. When Baker took office the following year, he didn’t rescind that order, but he never installed the council either.

Under the roadmap law, the council’s first official recommendations on the definition of the environmental justice population are due by July 31 — a deadline the council will be hard-pressed to meet, even if it started work immediately.

“Frankly, we’ve been waiting for a version of the EJ Advisory Council to be convened since [2014]. So in my mind, it needs to be convened tomorrow,” said Sofia Owen, staff attorney at Alternatives for Community and Environment, another of the organizations that supported what she called the “critically important” 2021 roadmap law. “The communities that are the most impacted by these issues ... can’t wait any longer for the governor to take these steps.”

Emma Foehringer Merchant is an intern with the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.