Investigating Oil Storage in Chelsea, MA.

This article was originally posted on the CRESSH newsletter, Issue Fall 2018.

Chemicals in the Creek: performative public data.

Pilot Project highlight from JPB EH Senior Fellow Sara Wylie, Laura Perovich, and Michael Still

On November 8th GreenRoots members, volunteers from Northeastern, MIT and Brandeis universities gathered to watch a performance of public data on Clean Water Act violations on Chelsea Creek by seven local oil storage facilities.

Chelsea Creek’s waterfront is zoned by the state for water dependent industries. Industrial sites on the Creek and on adjacent waterfront properties include oil storage facilities, road salt distribution centers, metal recycling and power generation. Because of these and other environmental burdens, Chelsea is inequitably burdened with environmental health risks. Its diverse residents thus face environmental injustice along with social justice challenges of income and educational disparities.

The oil storage facilities have Clean Water Act permits to emit waste into the Creek. Analysis by our research team found that together, the 7 oil storage facilities exceeded their permitted discharge quantities 76 times between 2013 and 2017. While this data is shared on the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, it took researchers many months to correctly find and interpret the online information, making it inaccessible in practice to those who live with these industrial burdens.

To explore how to create actual public access to and conversations about this data, GreenRoots’ Environmental Chelsea Organizers (ECO) and the authors collaboratively conceptualized an event to release a colored lantern onto the creek for each violation. The lanterns were designed, tested, and made by ECO and the authors with additional materials design from Shawn Sullivan, an undergraduate in Northeastern’s architecture department. This project was supported by funding from CRESSH and Northeastern’s Research Institute on Experiential learning.

ECO crew and volunteers released lanterns sequentially by year of violation (2013-2017).The result was a mesmerizing procession of glowing lanterns floating before a crowd of GreenRoots members and Chelsea youth. Described as “memorable”, “creative”, “unique” and “colorful” by viewers, the event stimulated a lively debate about the potential impacts of the chemicals and steps the community could take to help improve oversight. A recent study shows that under the Trump administration, EPA enforcement actions have declined to a 10 year low (EDGI 2018). As federal oversight of polluters decreases we hope such public events can continue to keep industries responsible to the communities and environments they impact and depend on. We intend to share the process of developing this event online so other communities might iteratively develop and spread the idea.