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To Thwart Polluters, We Need Better Policies

The hazards of living near heavy polluters in our district – from Logan Airport to our south, to the Wheelabrator incinerator in Saugus, to the emissions from trucks and tailpipes that impact Chelsea each day – are usually invisible. We can’t immediately see the results, but they’re there – increasing rates of asthma, cancer, and COVID-19, in communities like Revere, Chelsea, and Saugus.

Sometimes, the invisible becomes visible. Last Sunday, when smoke billowed out of the Wheelabrator facility in Saugus, it was a visible reminder of the consequences of decades of failed environmental policies – and a clear example of the need for change. But just asking for change isn’t enough – we need to look at the big picture, and put in place the structures that will create change. 

The first step is making sure Massachusetts is putting appropriate resources into environmental enforcement. In July, the Boston Globe reported that enforcement actions and fines against polluters – such as landfills and gas facilities – dipped nearly 75% since 2006, as the number of Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection employees fell off by nearly 25%.

When we don’t have the people in place to do air quality observations, safety inspections, and other needed checks, the result is going to be weaker enforcement. This is a bipartisan mistake, as every year our supermajority Democratic legislature continues to pass budgets that dedicate less than 1% of the state budget to environmental protection, despite warnings from public health and environmental groups about the critical need to invest in these programs. 

Beyond strengthening the Department of Environmental Protection, we also need to put in place stronger ethics laws that cut back on the revolving door of government regulators being heavily influenced by the companies and industries they are supposed to regulate. It doesn’t matter how well-staffed our environmental protection agencies are if they are staffed by people who are too cozy with polluters.

I am the only candidate in my race to have committed to not taking campaign contributions from fossil fuel lobbyists or executives. This should be a requirement of anyone serving in a leadership role on legislative committees like the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, or the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy.

When it comes to the Wheelabrator facility specifically, we need to look at  both short- and long-term steps to improve public health.

In the long-term, we need a state-level commitment to zero-waste policies that move us away from sending so much trash to landfills and incinerators. Ultimately, if trash is produced, it’s going somewhere – and right now, cities and towns are putting many items into the trash that we already know how to reuse or recycle, like food waste, yard trimmings, mattresses, and paper goods. Even just by offering up better recycling and reuse programs for the things we already know how to work with, we can cut municipal waste by over 50%. These steps are essential to preventing future expansion of landfills and incinerators, which we should be concerned about whether they be in our backyard or someone else’s.

In the short-term, the work of lobbying both the Saugus Board of Health and the MassDEP regarding Wheelabrator’s operations is important, though limited in likely effectiveness without broader policy shifts. We also need to look at immediate steps to provide public health relief, such as fighting to have the unlined, 140-acre landfill lined to prevent pollution from leaking into the nearby marsh; and putting in place – and enforcing – tougher guidelines on what comes out of the smoke stacks.

To be certain, none of this work will be quick or easy – whoever picks up the baton to continue the fight against pollution in vulnerable communities like ours will have to overcome decades of entrenched policy. But there are steps we can take to shift these policies, and move us toward a cleaner and more sustainable future. 

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