AG Healey Brief: Environmental Pollution Contributes to Disparate Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Communities of Color

Attorney General Maura Healey released a brief on the environmental factors that compound the COVID-19 pandemic’s disparate impact on communities of color in Massachusetts, and outlines steps the state should take to address the longstanding impact of environmental injustice on families, including investing in clean energy jobs, strengthening regulatory procedures to protect vulnerable communities, and fighting rollbacks of federal environmental protection laws.

“Longstanding injustices and inequities in our approach to environmental regulation have contributed to the fact that communities of color have been disparately impacted by this pandemic,” AG Healey said. “We need to work together to address the biases that this crisis exposes, including strengthening regulations, enforcing important environmental laws that fight pollution and protect public health, and advocating for a clean energy future.”

The brief – called “COVID-19’s Unequal Effects in Massachusetts” – features a Boston University School of Public Health analysis of data compiled by AG Healey’s Office and shows that communities with the highest percentage of Black, Brown, and immigrant residents – including Chelsea, Everett, Brockton, Lawrence and Lynn – are “hotspots” for the COVID-19 pandemic. These cities and towns have long been among the poorest and most polluted in the state, with higher than average asthma-related hospitalizations. These communities are also among the most vulnerable to climate change.

“Environmental justice communities have been disproportionately burdened by COVID-19, because of a combination of factors ranging from workplace exposures to overcrowded housing to environmental exposures that lead to higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease,” said Jonathan Levy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health. “Only by understanding the influence of environmental exposures can we protect vulnerable populations from this pandemic and future crises, including climate change.”

Massachusetts ranks fourth nationally in the total number of COVID-19 cases and third in total deaths, with the recent number of cases per 100,000 people in Chelsea (5,958) eclipsing those in New York City (2,257), according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the New York City Health Department.

Environmental factors are exacerbating COVID-19 in the state. According to the brief, industrial facilities, highways, and other sources are heavily concentrated in lower-income areas and communities of color, leading to high rates of air pollution, including fine particulate matter pollution. Last month, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health issued a study linking long term exposure to fine particulate matter with increased COVID-19 death rates. The BU School of Public Health recently released a mapping tool for COVID-19 vulnerability in Massachusetts, showing that the areas with the lowest environmental quality are communities of color and COVID-19 hotspots.

The brief argues that COVID-19 health disparities in Massachusetts, and across the nation, are the result of policy choices that have failed to protect vulnerable communities. As a result, the state’s current regulatory system allows for polluting industries and facilities to concentrate in environmental justice communities without the necessary safeguards in place or a level playing field in permitting and siting processes that favor parties with greater legal and technical resources.

“I’m delighted to see the Attorney General’s Office highlight the connections between the structural inequality imbedded within the design of the current energy system and the co-morbidities that contribute to the complications of COVID-19,” said Shalanda Baker, Professor of Law, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University School of Law and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Initiative for Energy Justice. “These revelations should counsel the Commonwealth to prioritize investments in locally-sited clean energy to reduce the health burdens disproportionately borne by our state’s communities of color.”

Said Brad Campbell, president of Conservation Law Foundation, “The Attorney General’s report makes clear that Chelsea and Everett are hit first and worst by COVID-19 and climate disruption because of decades of choices embedded in law and policy. Redlining by lenders decades ago and today’s standard-setting, siting, and enforcement practices for pollution have been lethal and unjust for low-income and minority communities, and this report is an overdue call for sweeping change.”

Said Roseann Bongiovanni, of Chelsea GreenRoots, “Chelsea, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, has an infection rate that is six times the state’s rate. Our residents are getting sick and dying in unprecedented numbers. Low-income communities and communities of color cannot and should not shoulder the burdens for the benefits realized by the entire region. Toxic facilities cannot continue to be sited in low-income communities of color. Now is the time to take swift and aggressive action to right years of wrongs.”

The existing environmental disparities that make communities of color particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 also make those same communities particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The effects of climate-driven extreme heat, extreme weather events, sea level rise, and degraded air quality are considerably amplified for vulnerable communities who often live near hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities that pose risks of explosion or leaks, struggle with chronic health conditions and lack economic stability.

In order to remedy these longstanding environmental injustices and to make Massachusetts more climate resilient, the AG’s brief recommends:

•Invest in Clean Energy Jobs to Promote Economic Recovery

These investments will create green jobs, build a more resilient climate and more healthy and equitable communities. The state should also prioritize incentives for rooftop solar and community-owned energy in environmental justice communities. Improving energy efficiency in buildings across the state will reduce reliance on polluting energy resources and make electricity more affordable for families across the state. 

•Halt Rollbacks of Federal Environmental Protections and Enforce Existing Laws

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has rolled back critical environmental protections, putting public health at further risk. In response to a request from the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a policy on March 26 that effectively suspended enforcement of certain federal environmental laws, even in situations where noncompliance poses an imminent threat to public health. AG Healey issued a statement last month pledging to uphold critical environmental and public health protections during the crisis. She also joined 13 attorneys general in sending a letter to EPA calling on the agency to withdraw the dangerous policy.

•Strengthen Requirements to Protect Environmental Justice Communities

The brief calls for a more robust network of air quality monitoring sites that can better track hot spots of particle pollution within vulnerable neighborhoods, with the goal of providing regular updates to communities on public health threats. The brief also calls for stronger environmental justice criteria and procedural safeguards in connection with regulatory permitting and siting decisions to ensure communities will not be disparately exposed to pollution.

In response to the growing needs around the COVID-19 crisis, AG Healey has called for more data on current access to testing, medical care, and rates of infection, in order to better target needed resources and support. The AG’s Office has expanded resources for Black, Brown, and immigrant communities and ramped up outreach efforts to these communities that are disproportionately impacted. Last week, the AG’s Office announced the distribution of more than 20,000 resource flyers in multiple languages to communities with high rates of coronavirus cases including Brockton, Chelsea, Lawrence, Randolph, Revere, Lynn, Everett, Stoughton, Worcester and communities across Boston. Visit the AG’s COVID-19 resource page for information about how the AG’s Office can provide support during this crisis.

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