The key to addressing climate change, said Bonnie Heiple, is that Massachusetts’ environmental agencies are all “rowing in the same direction.”
Heiple was chosen as the new commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection last month. She said on Boston Public Radio Friday that she wanted to join the Healey administration, in part, because of the wealth of resources available to environmental causes right now. Federal funds are baked into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, along with a proposed 10% budget increase to the department for the next fiscal year.
She saw a chance to get projects done. “It was sort of an ‘if not now, then when’ question,” she said.
The department is charged with clean water, clean air and land conservation, and a big part of its job is now focused on climage change. Heiple said she’s committed to involving the community more on major projects — in other words, making sure neighbors “have a seat at the table.”
And, with new money, she sees an opportunity to make significant investments, like $1.3 billion in grants and loans that the department pledged earlier this month. The funds will support improvements to drinking water, wastewater infrastructure, recycling business development grants and clean buses.
One grant Heiple singled out from the 185 beneficiaries: the Cambridge Community Center.
“One of our grants went to support putting solar on their roof, adding battery storage ... and biodiesel backup generation,” she said. “So when there is, the electricity system’s down, there is some kind of emergency event, this is the type of places where people in the community gather — there’s food, there’s heat, we’re keeping the lights on and the heat on there.
“Those types of grants, seeing them in action, it’s really powerful,” Heiple continued. “And that’s the type of supporting the community, supporting the services that they’re offering to the community while having that environmental benefit — those are the wins.”
Solar, wind and battery storage projects are crucial to electrifying buildings and cars during the transition to cleaner energy sources, Heiple said.
“Being an environmentalist used to mean no development,” Heiple said. “And now, meeting this huge point of inflection on climate, we need development.”
To make sure neighbors are involved, she named priorities like providing information in languages that neighborhood residents and creating an accessible process for stakeholders to weigh in.
Two high-profile projects have attracted criticism over that very issue in Massachusetts are the peaker plant in Peabody and the East Boston substation. Both were approved under former Gov. Charlie Baker. Host Jim Braude asked Heiple about the environmental justice needs of the East Boston community, where construction of the new substation has faced backlash.
“Our power is to make sure that processes like that don’t happen again,” Heiple said.
Now, Heiple said she sees her job as monitoring projects that have already been approved and keeping tabs on new facilities, or facility expansions, that will come up under her leadership.
Before being appointed by Healey in March, Heiple practiced as an energy and environmental attorney for about 15 years, most recently at Wilmer Cutler Hale Pickering and Dorr. She worked in renewable energy project development, litigation and advised companies on how to comply with state and federal environmental regulations.
Other priorities include expanded EV charging infrastructure and the “forever chemicals” PFAS, Heiple said. Her department is looking at policies that both clean up existing PFAS in the environment, while extending producers’ responsibility for new products made with these chemicals.
The greatest concern, Heiple said, is communication with the private sector and communities across all environmental issues to ensure that everyone is rowing in the same direction.