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WORCESTER, MA-The Office of Environmental Affairs released a draft policy last December on the need to address environmental justice issues in certain areas of the state and listed a number of standards that would enable a city to be designated an environmental justice community. The standards would apply if at least 15% of the community is low income, minority or not of American origin.

“The need for environmental justice has been most widely recognized in communities of color and in low-income communities,” notes the MEOE draft of the proposals. “Nationally, these two sectors of society have borne the largest burden of environmental degradation and have received the fewest environmental benefits. This policy builds on the national environmental justice framework by compiling a set of indicators that may help further identify communities at risk.”

Once a community meets those standards, it can be subjected to heightened environmental monitoring. “It sets up an additional standard of use,” Paul Matthews, spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce here, tells GlobeSt.com. “The communities that fall under these standards, which are mostly urban areas, would be subject to more regulations than suburban areas.” Also, under the new policy, any 10 taxpayers could petition the state to receive the designation if they felt a development was coming in that was not “just.”

But Doug Pizzi, spokesperson for the Office of Environmental Affairs tells GlobeSt.com that, “There are places that are overburdened with emissions and before new uses are sited with more emissions we need to take a look at the cumulative effect.” Pizzi also emphasizes that this is still a draft policy. “We take the public process very seriously,” he says.

A number of local real estate and business trade groups–such as the National Association of Office and Industrial Properties and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts–are opposed to the policy. These organizations are also concerned about the impact such a policy will have on future development in the state. In a letter to Environmental Affairs Secretary Robert Durand, Worcester City Manager Thomas R. Hoover writes that “this proposal would have severe repercussions for economic development in older industrial cities such as Worcester. By treating such communities with different standards of environmental review and monitoring, it certainly offers a disincentive to developers considering such urban areas for investment. Surely there are enough other disadvantages to remediating a contaminated property in an urban area under current environmental statutes without adding an inequitable review process.” Worcester has an estimated 500 acres of brownfields.

“Many urban areas outside Boston missed the real estate boom and the brownfields act was passed as a series of incentives to encourage developers to reuse brownfields,” points out Matthews. “This policy would seem to contradict the brownfields policy and be a disincentive to developers to reuse brownfields.” That is something that “second tier” cities like Worcester and Lowell can’t afford to have, notes Matthews.

But Pizzi says that his office does not feel the policy would hinder brownfields development. “It’s one of the secretary’s priorities to develop brownfields and he certainly wouldn’t put roadblocks in its way,” he notes. “We want to redevelop core cities where appropriate and we want to redevelop brownfields,” Pizzi says, adding, “We’re evaluating all the public comments and it’s possible that some things could change.”

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