Stories from the Frontlines
Stories from the Frontlines

Season 1, Episode 6 · 5 months ago

Alien Language


This week on Stories from the Frontlines, we’re sharing the story of John Walkey from GreenRoots, an organization in Chelsea, MA. John has been fighting to stop an electric substation from being built in an overburdened community, in a flood zone, across from a to giant tanks of jet fuel. Listen to John talk about navigating the overlapping obstacles of technical jargon, language barriers, and a pandemic all while finding the hope to keep building toward a just and healthy world.

(Quick note that this episode was recorded in September, and John is referring to the November 2021 elections. Boston voters overwhelmingly voted “no” on the ballot question regarding building the substation - 83% were opposed).

You can support the campaign by checking out GreenRoots’ website (, and finding the group on Facebook (GreenRootsChelsea) or Twitter (@GreenRootsEJ). You can sign up for the mailing list at and join the Facebook group at Check out #NoEastieSubstation and #Neversource on Twitter for relevant content.

Learn more about Community Action Works on our website:

We’re also on Facebook (Community Action Works), Twitter (@ComActionWorks), and Instagram (@ComActionWorks).

Hello and welcome back to stories from the front lines brought to you by community action works. At Community Action Works, we believe that environmental threats are big, but the power of well organized community groups is bigger. That's why we work side by side with everyday people to confront those who are polluting and harming the health of our communities. I'm one of your hosts, near a Pajahni, the western Massachusetts community organizer with Community Action Works, and I'm Shane Casterbil one in New Hampshire, state director with community action works. Each episode of this podcast will bring on a new community member or activist to share their story of taking on environmental threats from the front line. This season's theme is stories about our energy system and our regional grid operator in the our east. This week we're talking to John Walky from Green Roots, an organization and Chelsea, Massachusetts that's fighting to stop a proposed electric substation in their neighborhood. Welcome John, thanks love for having me on. Appreciate it. Tell us a bit about yourself and green root. Sure so. I'm the Director of Waterfront Initiative at Green Roots and green roots is an environmental justice organization. We've been around under one name or another for the past twenty five years or so and we work in principally in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but we also work in the Community East Boston. We work along the Chelsea Creek, which is a marine estuary that separates East Boston from Chelsea, and, like a lot of environmental justice groups, we take on a whole bunch of different issues. We started out with advocating from our open space and urban setting for our communities, and then we've gone on to look at a lot of different public health concerns, especially in regards to air pollution, and we have work with some community gardens, with Youth Program we transit advocacy and climate resiliency on the waterfront and climate resiliency in terms of things like heat island effects is something that we've been focusing on recently. And to give you a little background for folks who don't know Chelsea reast Boston, the two communities are really the consider like gateway communities. The neighborhood of East Boston is the only majority Latino neighborhood in Boston and Chelsea, very similarly, is densely packed, just like East Boston, about to little over two square miles of about Fiftyzero or so folks, little more now with this latest census, and the majority of those folks being very diverse, a lot of immigrants, a lot of different language is spoken about, a three quarters of the population being ethnic minorities and about a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, and a similar situation for East Boston. And in both of these communities, the the Chelsea Creek, which is although it's the river that separates the two communities, it also brings us both together in terms of the kind of burdens the communities are bearing for the region, and that includes, obviously, and East Boston, where the home to Logan International Airport and all those planes have to fly somehow, and a hundred percent of the jet fuel that goes into those planes comes up on tankers on the Chelsea Creek and our stored on tanks along the banks of the creek. About sixty over sixty percent of the gasoline used around Massachusetts comes up through the Chelsea Creek. Eighty percent of the home heating oil is stored along the Chelsea Creek. We have a huge mountainous pile of road salt and Chelsea at big like about five story tall white pile of salt. And that goes out to over three hundred fifty communities around Massachusetts and beyond and New England and then on the Chelsea ever border, the New England Produce Center is the largest produce distribution point on the east coast. They serve from the carrot a Canadian maritime provinces all the way ...

...down to the Atlantic states with produce and vegetables, fruits and vegetables. And this is not even just to mention also the other transportation infrastructure of a bridge at Tobin Bridge and three tunnels that all provide critical access into Boston from the north shore and all of these things are important for the region, but they bear a burden that falls just proportionately on our communities, and so that's the kind of work that we're focused on. So, Johnny told us a bit about your your role at green roots. Can you tell us more about your background, where you grew up or what kind of got you thinking about environmental issues? Sure. So I grew up on the north shore and in Saugust nearby to East Boston. My Mother's family was originally from East Boston and I originally I went to be. You got a degree in archeology and went off and did that for a while and came back and got a degree and environmental science, and I've always had an interest in the environment and the connections between human systems and natural systems and coming and and did that kind of work overseas for a while, came back to the Boston area a few years ago and sort of fell into this whole urban ecology sort of work and it was just really fun to see how human systems and the natural systems work. And we've a green roots. We've been doing a lot of work in terms of ecological restoration and certain areas and trying to figure out how that fits in with storm water management from a municipal standpoint, how does it fit in with people getting green space and the sort of health benefits that people get from having a healthy environment around them? And ultimately there's just sort of this feeling that adjust environment equals a healthy environment, which equals a more healthy system as a whole, and that the thing that's really out of lack with our lives. The injunt the injustice is that we see that seemed like they have nothing to do with the environment. They actually are part and parcel of a system that that undermines everything for people and just provide benefits to a few, which sounds a whole lot like the environmental justice sort of framing. So this work, I think, really plugs into a foundation of how I feel that a healthy environment will be a more just society. So that's whew. I got involved in this and why projects like this substation just sort of speak to me amazing. Thank you for sharing that. Can you share a little bit about the substation fight and what is a substation and why it's a problem? So I live over an East Boston, right up the hill from the creek, and a number of years ago, at a local neighborhood association meetings, I wasn't even working at green roots at that point, we heard this news that ever source that entered into an agreement with the city of Boston at the time, Mayor Menino, that's how long ago it was, was was the mayor, and there was a land swap going on and there was something about getting this great new library and we all were supposed to pay attention to that. But then the back part of this was, oh, and ever source is going to get this piece of property in your neighborhood that's right down on the Chelsea Creek and they're going to build a substation there. So we, I started following this and then more folks got involved following this along those sort of regulatory process and we knew nothing about a lot of like how the stuff works, but we thought, so, how does it work? Yeah, what is the substation? The what we found out was that this substation, which is part of our electrical transmission infrastructure. So this is one of those on the sides of the road you might see these big gray boxes beside behind a fence and there's these high voltage cables going into it, and this is a series of transformers that just convert high boultage electricity that's being transmitted somewhere for a long distance. It steps it down to distribution level voltage, which then goes out around the...

...neighborhood. And so they decided that East Boston need one of these and they proposed it for a spot and and this is sort of where people start looking at me and their head starts tilting and they start saying what, what are you talking about? Because they proposed it for a piece of property that's right on the Chelsea Creek which, as I mentioned, is a marine estuary. So we get a lot of with climate change, sea level rise, were concerned about flooding along the coastline with increased storm surge. We're concerned about erosion and this is a property that has erosion along the front of it and it's location is pretty specific. It's right across the street from playground where a lot of the kids in the neighborhood are all going to play, and then it's about a hundred meters away from one of those huge eight million gallon tanks of jet fuel. Yeah, so, if you might recall hardy, yeah, pretty outrageous. Yeah, yeah, you probably remember Hurricanes Sandy. When it hit New York, we had some a substation down there flooded and exploded pretty spectacularly. Electricity and water don't mix very well. So the thing we're concerned about is electricity and water mixing right next to this eight million gallop tank of fuel. But you mentioned you heard about this at a community eating a while back and also for context for folks who are in a similiar with Boston politics, many know was mayor up until two thousand and fourteen. So while back already. And so how where did that go from there? So you went to this community meeting, and what kind of happens after that to turn into the campaign that we've seen in the last few years? Well, we got involved with the crazy world of acronyms. So there's something called the EFS, be the energy facility sighting board, and that's the state agency that is made up of like commissioners from different, different agencies within the state government, and they're the ones that call the shots on where you going to put a substation, a power plant, transmission lines, all that sort of stuff, and they're supposed to take in consideration, you know, reliability of the grid and Environmental Impacts, community impacts, is not really part of their per view. They really don't consider people, they guess consider stuff, and so we started going to their meetings and we're concerned about it and we mobilized around twenty or thirty folks from the neighborhood, all Spanish speaking, because that's the people going to be most affect it's their kids in the playground, and we went to one of these hearings they were having. Actually was the final hearing where they're going to make their decision and we reached out to them and said Hey, we we are bringing a bunch of folks down. We're going to need interpretation for this, and they said, well, we can provide limited interpretation. We weren't exactly sure what that meant and when we got there we found out, with about twenty people sitting in this room, there was an interpreter there and she wasn't doing anything. And we leaned over and we said those the preceding started. We saw you going to interpret and said well, no, we it's too disruptive to interpret the proceedings here into Spanish for the people sitting in the audience. So what we're going to do is at the end, if they want to ask any questions in Spanish, I will interpret that into English for the board. And we said you're kidding. Said No, that's what they told me to do. So we said that's it's outrageous, just tremendously frustrating. That's so, that's that's started along. I mean they started along battle and the process has actually gone on into a different proceedings that they move the site over, like by two hundred feet, and so that resulted in a restart of the project and and we got involved. Green Roots got actually involved as an intervener, they call it. So we got a probone or attorney, and we started getting into this and really, as we moved along through the process, it became obvious that this stuff is so technical and so high end that regular community folks, regardless of whether you speak English or not, you might as well it might as well be in some other alien language because it's all super technical. And one of the other acronyms that popped...

...up at the time we kept hearing about was ISO New England. Is New England, and we said, well, what the hell's Io and and we started asking around, like why they keep saying this is definitely needed. We so well, who says it's needed and so will ioo says, and then everybody walked with Oh my God, Isao says as needed, and we said, well, who are they and why are they get to say what's needed? And we actually have done some studies to look with the Union concerned, scientists and other folks to say is this really needed? And we don't have a conclusive answer that this project really it's a sixty plus million dollar project and a hundred percent of that cost is on the rate pairs. So there's a real interest on the part of the project proponent. Ever, source and invest your own utility. There's a real interest for them to build it, whether it's needed or not, because they're going to get make a lot of money off of it. But for us we're taking on yet another risk in our community, and so that's where we're starting to ask that question. Just go to someplace like is isel and say well, who are you and what are you doing here? Yeah, thanks for that. Explanations, John, at what rewinding to a little bit and they you've used we a lot and talking about this campaign, and that's primarily green roots. And also just can you paint the picture a little bit more of who that we is who's been leading this offer? So we we started out, we started out as just some of the neighbors and folks in who were surrounding the the site when we started finding out about it. So we're talking about a lot of Spanish speaking folks. As I mentioned one of the families that's the closest, Rebecca and Paul. They have got three little kids there they're raising right within three hundred feet of this project and actually there are sort of on a hill and they're looking right down over this thing, so they have a perfect view of it all. There's a business next door that does fish processing. They're concerned about it. They don't necessarily want this next to them either. So there are a lot of folks in the neighborhood, community activists, just folks who are active, who are concerned and for green roots. That's the important part that all of our campaigns are driven by the community. If they have a concern, that's what we're taking up. It's not just because we thought it was a bad idea, but it was because the folks in the neighborhood started putting up sign saying, you know, the Little Red Circle of the line through it, saying no ever source, and that's where we started getting into this idea that yes, this is a project of community doesn't want and we need some technical assistance and some help, legal assistance to really go to bat to try to make sure it doesn't happen. Yeah, it so we talked a lot about how the important delaying can be as a tactic on these kinds of campaigns, but I feel in my experience it can also make it really hard to keep the community engaged and keep folks fired up. So how did you continue to find hope and feel it to other that that's been the real challenge, because it's will have check in meetings and now with with covid actually one of the the another sort of moment of environmental injustice and freaking out. And actually it's those moments of freaking out and like craziness, ludicrousness that really help fire up people and keep them engaged because they're just so mad about it. But right before we went into lockdown with the pandemic, we were supposed to have the final final hearing. We had had some hearings via zoom. I mean this is prior to zoom. We had had meetings in person and now they're going to have this last meeting and they said, well, we're going to accommodate you and habit at the East Boston high school and we said we're about to we have a pandemic going on and you want all these people to come together into a big auditorium like and this was the early days the pandemic. So people freaked out and they held off on it and then they started doing... via zoom and it was very hard for people to engage in those meetings or we have at overtime. People have gotten more conversant zoom, so we've been using that to keep people updated and there's a number of different because of the complexity of this project being on the waterfront, there are a bunch of different permits and things. So we've had and some of those other permits are stuff that we're more traditional used to working with, so those were more manageable and we were able to bring people together to say are they're having a hearing on this other permit about waterfront development. Let's go and give our comments, and so we were able to engage people on all the different pieces. The Conservation Commission had to do a review of it at the city of Boston, and at each one of those processes, like you say, we appeal every decision and we throw sand in the gears and we try to slow this thing down because the reality is the further we go along, the more and more it just becomes like a project that just looks really bad. It's one of those things that just needs to be done very quickly because if anyone really spends time looking at it, they start to realize they don't want to be associated with it, and so that's been our tactic, is to really slow it up and keeping people engaged. Has Been a matter of keeping them informed what's happening and being realistic about how quickly something's going to happen. You can't tell people let's go all get excited and do something tomorrow, because realistically it's going to take some time for it to play a yeah, that's definitely such a key piece, and these kinds of campaigns that can last for years, is being realistic about the timeline you're working with. You mentioned people feeling really angry and frustrated through the process not being a key driver as well. You talk a little bit more about how you and others felt as the campaign unfolded? Where their inflection points that you felt really shifted momentum for or against you as you were working on the different pieces? Yeah, actually, it feels a little bit like bumper cars or something, or one of those amusement park rides where it shifts back and forth all the time. A little bit of whiplash in terms of those inflection points. There have been times where we felt like, Oh my God, this is just going to go through. They're so huge. We can't stop them. And then there are times where people all turn out and we have the mayor responding the and this case around, our interim mayor, Kim Janey, came out and spoke out against it. We've had a really great moment was when we had at the time representative Joe Kennedy. He came out and spoke out against it and we got a sign on letter that had people from the federal delegation, people at the state level and then our city counselor against it. We have people at all levels of government all saying the same they all signed on to the same letter saying do not build this, this is a bad idea, and that's a that's a great feeling because when you can get it's a little bit easy for them. We wanted. The challenges is that politicians are like to say, yeah, we'll back you on this and they don't want to go public and when they go public, either they think they're going to win or it's a feeling like well, it's out of our hands, we can't do anything, so it's no risk for me to say I don't want to see this. But it was really a good feeling to have all of them say this is a bad idea, and we've been using that to get decent amount of media coverage in the local media here in the globe and the radio stations. So there's moments where it feels really strong, moments where it feels like they're still point going ahead with this and is this ever going to end? But I think the political moment for the city of Boston right now is all up in the air because it's selection season. But that means you can get people's attention and we have actually on the ballot for November. We have a ballot question. Question number three is whether or not, it's just a nonbinding ballot question of whether or not ever source should build this substation, and he's Boston. And so the idea is to get the people of Boston saying we don't want it. So...

...if you got all the politicians, you get the people of Boston saying they don't want it. Eventually. You know, one of the things you just want to force every source to do is to actually come to the table and say why this is needed, because so far they've avoided it. They just say trust us, it's needed. So we're going to go into those next steps in just a second, but before we do, and knowing that you've done so much organizing before the pandemic and knowing that green roads really made a significant shift as a result of covid hitting your community, can you just share a little bit about what that shift looked like and how you were able to provide comunity care? Sure, it definitely was a huge first year of this sort of lockdown. All of our projects to sort of went into hold and the folks that we work with it became they were calling us saying I need to get medicine, I need to get food, or somebody is sick in my family, and the the communities that we work with are really the front line communities. These are the folks who are considered essential workers and so many of them, being undocumented, are not considered essential people like and usually, but then all of a sudden, when things got tough under covid, these were the important people that had to get out there and had to be working. They couldn't work remotely and they have their kids, you know, needed to get to school later on when school started up again, or they had to figure out how to operate zoom and a lot of folks this that was a challenge. So for green roots we really went into sort of a like the mutual aid kind of model of bringing together people at a block by block basis, reaching out to neighbors, finding out what they needed, coordinating resources that were coming in. And also we were the the hardest hit community at the height of the pandemic. In the beginning we had the infection rates and Chelsea were as high as some of the borrows in New York City. So it was really ground zero, the highest in the State of Massachusetts certainly, and for East Boston it was the neighborhood hardest hit of all of Boston. And then when it came time for the for the vaccines, we were the neighborhoods that were not getting the vaccines. We were told. People were told to drive down to, you know, Fox Farwer, to the stadium to go get your vaccine, whereas in some other neighborhoods and wealthier areas there were vaccine stations being set up in there. So there's a lot there was a lot of squawking at a higher level to bring in the resources needed first to respond to the effects of covid and then to try to get the resources for the vaccine into the neighborhood as well. So at that really kept those busy through the first year and the half of Covid and then all of a sudden all the projects start picking up again and so you then you're doing covid response and your projects. So it's pretty crazy. Yeah, going off of that, well, thanks for the work that you've been do, you know, in supporting the community. And then you mentioned the projects pick back up again and I know I was tuning in via zoom to some of the EFSB hearings over this past fall winter when, you know, East Boston and Chelsea were being hit pretty pretty hard by covid and there was weather on top of that, and the FSB with scheduling hearings at inconvenient times with little notice and again, a very little access to interpretation. Can you tell us a bit about that latest wave of proceedings and what that looks like? Sure once they, once they got more once the bureaucrats and the state employees got more comfortable and conversant with zoom, they started really just saying, all right, let's do these zoom meetings and just blow through this thing, and we had to sort of hold them back and say, well, wait a minute, there are people who, you know, if you do this at a certain time of the day, they're they only have one phone or whatever that they're using to access zoom and their kid is doing schooling through that, you know, during the day and if you have it in the evenings, you have to sort...

...of figure out how you do that when people have their kids, they're trying to feed and whatever else is going on. It's not like you're dealing with just somebody who has got the time to spend on this or is being paid to be there, as the majority of folks who are usually there are. So bringing in the community was a challenge that interpretation. Zoom provides a lot of tools for that. That's great. However, at the end of the day there needs to be a human who's hearing stuff in English and translates it into Spanish. Well, that person doesn't know anything about the electrical sector. They don't have the vocabulary in Spanish to translate it. So they really didn't prepare their interpreters a lot of the interface. You know, you can do zoom in a webinar mode and people can't really participate and when you come right down to it, it's it's great to have this additional access for people who are homebound. However, there's nothing like a community meeting to force people in power to have to face a room full of people who are pissed off at them and be a zoom. They can just hit you and bang they've got control. So it's not from a organizing perspective it's not the best tool in the world. You don't want everything to go to this format. So there were a lot of their their scheduling of these meetings left a lot to be desired the use of the tools. Also, we're not all that great for community participation and we've been trying to provide I mean, one thing has occurred since in recent time here has been the passing of a climate bill in Massachusetts, where the ideas of public participation, of public access to process has become really important, and now we're really looking at how we can give solid recommendations to how these agencies can can really improve their the way they engage people. Thank you so much to John for coming on and sharing his story with us. To Support Green Roots and this campaign. Check out the links in the show notes. Thank you all for tuning in today. I don't forget to join US next time as we head over to Western mass to learn about a proposed gas pipeline that would run from Longmeadow to springfield. Michelle rants from the Longmeadow pipeline awareness group will tell us more about what's going on there. And did you have it yet? Being sure to subscribe to this podcast on whatever podcast platform us so you don't miss a new episode, as I at posted, and write us a review to help others find us too. To learn more about community acting works, check out our website and our social media again, all of those links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and talk with you next week. Stories from the front lines is brought to you by community action works. It is recorded by me near a p Johnny, with support from Shana Casper, edited and produced by Lilly McLaughlin. Special thanks to Theo Rosen for research and development, to Gage Calhoun for supporting this project through her fundraising work and to Aaron Matthew for composing and recording the original music. We wouldn't be able to make this happen without the incredible work of the movement and the support of the community action work scheme, especially Ruthy rickenbacker. Our campaigns are made possible through our do paying members, donors and funders, but really through the hard and tireless work of our community leaders who've been fighting pollution and seating solutions across the region since one thousand and seven. Thank you.

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