Critics of controversial East Boston substation make court appeal: ‘This is the last Hail Mary.’

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That law enshrined certain protections for so-called “environmental justice neighborhoods” — where the population on average is low-income, has a high percentage of people of color, and/or where a sizable number of households do not speak English very well, if at all. East Boston, a dense residential community with a high percentage of immigrants, meets all of those standards.
In a courtroom packed with dozens of advocates and residents opposing the project, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation argued that approval of the substation should be overturned because it violates a 2021 state law intended to protect communities like East Boston from the burden of industrial infrastructure.
After years of community protests, a nonbinding ballot question, and seemingly endless legal proceedings, the fight against an Eversource substation in East Boston entered its final round at the state’s Supreme Judicial Court on Monday.
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“This substation will contribute to and exacerbate environmental burdens in East Boston,” Phelps Turner, the Conservation Law Foundation attorney, said to the panel of judges. What’s more, it will be taking space that had been previously promised by the city of Boston as soccer fields — a much-needed open space resource in a community that’s home to Logan Airport, entrances and exits to tunnels, petroleum terminals, and shipping terminals.
The law requires the equitable distribution of environmental and energy benefits and burdens, something that had been expressed earlier through state policies and executive orders, but never put into law until 2021. Even though the state siting board didn’t begin its proceeding on the East Boston substation until 2022, Turner argued it failed to meet the requirements of the law.
The siting board approval found that any burden from the substation would be construction-related, short-lived, and minor, but Turner argued in court on Monday that’s not the case.
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Locals have worried for years about the substation being built on flood-prone land, directly on Chelsea Creek, that could become more vulnerable as sea levels rise, heightening the risk of an explosion. The substation would be located near tanks of jet fuel and a gas station.
Noemy Rodriguez, a community organizer with GreenRoots, walker near the site of the Eversource substation that is being built in East Boston. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Eversource has said that the design of the substation exceeds local and federal flood-elevation standards, and that the structure will be built to withstand 500-year flood waters while taking into account rising sea levels.
But those fears still exist — even if it may be too late.
The substation is already under construction, with trucks digging and building on the site just across from East Boston’s American Legion playground near the bank of the Chelsea Creek. With all other avenues to fight the substation exhausted, Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the advocacy group Greenroots, was down, but not out. “This is it,” she said after the hearing. “This is the last Hail Mary.”
In the courtroom, the judges questioned whether the arguments they were hearing were new, or rather a re-hash of questions that have been litigated earlier. That was what the state argued, too.
“This is the third time through the ringer on this particular project for the siting board, and the second time that it has come to this court,” Adam Ramos, special assistant attorney general to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board, said to the judges.
He went on to argue that the considerations for environmental justice communities had been taken into account, and that the substation was needed to ensure the delivery of reliable energy in East Boston and in Chelsea, and to electrify some of Logan Airport’s operations.
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The state also needs lots of new energy facilities, such as the one proposed for East Boston, to meet its ambitious plans to combat climate change. That plan centers on pivoting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which will require essentially tripling the size of the electric grid by 2050. The two largest electric utilities have proposed building more than 40 new substations combined.
A State Trooper spoke with local members of the international environmental movement Extinction Rebellion who were blocking the entrance to the Energy and Environmental Affairs office to protest against the Eversource East Boston substation in 2021. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
After the hearing on Monday, Eversource spokesman William Hinkle said the substation was “critically needed” and that it had been approved following a “comprehensive, years-long public review process as well as an extensive outreach plan that we conducted with elected officials, community groups, business owners, and residents.” That outreach and engagement met the requirements of the 2021 law, according to earlier legal filings by Eversource.
But residents say it was too little, too late. “We were left in the dark,” said Sandra Nijjar, a longtime East Boston resident who emigrated from El Salvador.
“Non-English speakers were left out on all the information about this proposal,” she said. When she has knocked on doors to inform residents as a Greenroots volunteer, she said, “each time people find out they get really upset and concerned, and they’re like, ‘How come I didn’t know? How long has this been going on?’”
And now they fear the fight may be coming to an end.
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Gail Miller, a 75-year-old retired court reporter and longtime East Boston resident, said she had been fighting the substation for about eight years and doesn’t want to see more infrastructure put into her community.
“It’s like being a jilted lover,” she said after the hearing. “You feel like, are you just going to get jilted again?”
The judges will issue an opinion in the coming months. Until then, even if the odds feel stacked against her side and construction continues, Miller said she’s not giving up. “We live on hope.”
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.

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