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Chinatown residents weigh in on pollution

Some skeptical of state officials’ willingness to mitigate air quality

Avery Bleichfeld
Chinatown residents weigh in on pollution
Russell Eng, president of Friends of Reggie Wong Park. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

Members of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) held a final listening session Feb. 15 to present and get feedback on the draft of an environmental justice strategy that would govern how departments within the office approach their work.

EEA began developing the draft strategy in 2020, a process required under the EEA’s environmental justice policy. The draft was released in November and the office sought feedback from Massachusetts residents in five listening sessions across the state, held either in person or virtually. The comment period on the draft closed Feb. 17 and the EEA expects to release final strategy later this year.

At the Feb. 15 session, Chinatown community members voiced a number of environmental concerns about their neighborhood generally, including access to open space, air quality issues due to the neighborhood’s proximity to both Interstates 90 and 93, and heat island effects due to the neighborhood’s limited tree cover.

“There’s just so many [environmental justice concerns],” said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. “I think heat is a huge one, [and] lack of open space, and then I think energy justice, because it’s a very low-income community and people are being hit hard by utility costs.”

Russell Eng, president of Friends of Reggie Wong Park, said that he has gotten used to seeing research done about the environmental impacts in Chinatown — like the CAFEH study which looked at air pollution due to the neighborhood’s proximity to multiple highways — without seeing change.

“Why do we need to have to constantly ask, ask and ask and get nothing done and hear ‘Oh yeah, we’re working on it’ or ‘We just got delayed’ or whatever?” Eng said.

Lowe, who also serves as a member of the state’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, had suggested EEA hold a listening session in Chinatown. She said it was important to her that they could hear from people on the ground who are facing major environmental concerns.

“This is really great, and the document that they’re producing, I think, is really worthwhile and has some really great goals in it — but then [I was] feeling that on the ground, what the actual condition is and what I see happening just doesn’t match all of this great language,” Lowe said.

She said she thought a listening session in a place that has long faced environmental issues would help bridge the gap between goals and reality.

“We need to look at what’s happening on the ground and in real life and figure out, if we want to prioritize environmental justice, how does that actually happen? How does that actually get done?” Lowe said.

Maria Hardiman, a spokesperson for EEA, acknowledged the climate impacts in Chinatown in a statement sent to the Banner.

“The Healey-Driscoll administration is committed to ensuring that environmental justice communities will have a seat at the table as the Commonwealth confronts the climate crisis,” Hardiman wrote. “That means meeting people where they are — including the most recent listening session on the draft Environmental Justice Strategy in Chinatown, a community plagued with extreme heat and other disproportionate climate impacts. EEA staff were grateful for the opportunity to hear directly from Chinatown residents and are working to develop strategies to improve the health and wellbeing of the neighborhood.”

For community members, it remains a question what tangible results the listening session and the new strategy might bring to Chinatown.

Lowe said she is not sure what she expects to see come out of the document that will directly impact Chinatown.

“My goal as an EJ Advisory Council member is that the strategy document should be as concrete as possible in terms of how it gets implemented,” Lowe said, “and it can’t just be a document that sits on a shelf, but if the state really wants to prioritize environmental justice, it needs to put its money where its mouth is, and really have staff that are really figuring out, how do you implement environmental justice? It’s such a big question.”

Eng expressed concern that a statewide implementation of the new strategy might limit focus on local communities like Chinatown that he thinks need more attention.

“I think that all those agencies are learning themselves what they can do and how to collaborate, integrate services to help communities — and maybe, you know, it’s going to happen, but then are they going to be statewide and spread too thin? Or will they be able to focus on certain areas … [then] scale out to other areas?” Eng said.

According to the EEA, specific communities like Chinatown should expect to see staff from the office be more responsive and receptive to their needs. That might include support through grant funding, work with other agencies and engaging with stakeholders.

Community members expressed concerns about the potential challenges of a grant application process, especially for individuals who do not know how to approach that process. At the session, Rishi Reddi, EEA’s director of Environmental Justice, discussed the idea of the state providing guidance or assistance in applying for grants.

Community members also noted that the draft strategy under consideration at the listening session applied specifically to EEA, while other offices in the state government might have a more direct impact on the neighborhood.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) owns Parcels 25-28, which encompass part of Chinatown, including Reggie Wong Memorial Park.

The strategy directs the EEA to coordinate efforts with other parts of the state government. Separately, Executive Order 552, which was signed in 2014 by then-Governor Deval Patrick, directed all secretariats within the state government to develop their own environmental justice policy. According to information provided to the Banner by the EEA, that executive order will soon be implemented.

While questions remain about what will come of the strategy, Eng said he is hopeful the listening session will bring needed attention to the environmental issues in Chinatown.

“Will things happen? I hope so,” Eng said. “I hope that [listening session] put eyes on Chinatown that weren’t there before. I hope it makes it a place where things should happen earlier than later.”

Lowe said seeing that the state government is focusing on environmental justice at all makes her hopeful the neighborhood might see progress.

“The fact that environmental justice is being lifted up as a goal is a huge thing,” Lowe said. “Do I expect it to bring a lot of change right away? Probably not. Just seeing how slow systems change, I think it’s going to take some time. But I am cautiously optimistic that this is going to bring some change.”