The recent news about the lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan water supply got me to thinking about environmental justice and how it is implemented (or not) in Massachusetts. Since 2002, Massachusetts has purportedly been governed by a guidance from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (now the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs). The guidance provides for environmental justice training and outreach and enhanced public participation for projects that need a permit under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, if the projects ware located near “environmental justice populations.” Governor Patrick further emphasized the need for environmental justice by issuing Executive Order 552. That order requires the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to “ensur[e] equal compliance and enforcement” for facilities in areas with environmental justice populations, enhanced MEPA review for projects in those areas and ensuring brownfield remediation in environmental justice areas.
The reality seems to fall far short of these policy goals. A check of DEP’s website lists no meaningful accomplishments under the executive order. The Department of Environmental Protection’s website has a limp hand wave at environmental justice: “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts maintains a number of programs that can be utilized and are sometimes targeted specifically at Environmental Justice communities.” Really? Those programs can be used to assist these communities? How about really demonstrating that the department is committed to environmental justice by doing something?
It is especially frustrating that we know that one of the most important environmental justice issues– lead contamination in the paint in old houses– has been a known environmental health risk for over fifty years. Yet we still see children exposed to and contaminated by lead paint that should have been remediated a long time ago. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no known level of lead in the blood that is considered safe but approximately four million children are exposed to high levels of lead in their homes. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/. Closer to home, Hampden and Berkshire Counties have the worst statistics in the state for risk for childhood lead poisoning. http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/researcher/community-health/environment-health/lead/childhood-lead-poisoning-screening-and-statistics.html.
Lead poisoning of children in our communities, whether it is from contaminated water or peeling paint in unsafe homes, needs a lot more attention from policymakers and health advocates.