Chelsea residents are already fighting for clean air, green spaces and now, protection from rising waters


“When we fight, we win!”

At almost all manifestations, it is a common song; but in environmental justice communities, it’s a daily mantra. Fresh air, clean water, and healthy green spaces are commonplace in many communities, but not in most low-income communities and communities of color. For places like Chelsea, East Boston, Lawrence, Roxbury and many more, fighting – through protests, letters, meeting with policymakers, pro bono lawsuits and more – is the only way to stop the establishment of more toxic installations. This is the only way to gain a piece of open space or a breath of fresh air.

Now, with the worst effects of climate change looming, Chelsea residents face yet another battle — sea level rise and extreme weather events with severe flooding.

Chelsea, the smallest city in Massachusetts and one of the most densely populated, has borne disproportionate burdens on the environment and public health for decades. The city is surrounded by water on three sides – by the Island End River, Mill Creek, Chelsea Creek, and the Mystic River – but no one who lives here considers it a waterfront city. Until recently, you couldn’t get close to much of the 3 mile long waterfront or even see the water except to cross the three bridges that cross our waterways. Package by package, activists have fought and continue to fight for public access to an industry-dominated waterfront for decades.

There is, however, a spot nestled between the New England Produce Center and Island End River, where residents fought and won. Fifteen years ago, the residents of Chelsea, organized through Green roots, challenged a Chapter 91 developer license, a Massachusetts permit long intended to protect public access to what were once public tidelands. With that appeal, they were granted access to the river through trellis walkways, lighted boardwalks, an easement to connect what has become a public park, and kayak launches at Admiral’s Hill Marina. This multi-year struggle, with dozens of committed residents with volunteer lawyers and multiple strategies, is a prime example of “when we fight, we win!” “

Volunteers at a recent cleanup event at Island End Park in Chelsea, Mass. A storm surge flooded the marsh, the boardwalk, the park, the street and beyond. (Courtesy of GreenRoots)

The fight continues today, to connect the entire Chelsea waterfront through parks, open spaces and walkways, while preventing more toxic industrial threats from taking hold by the water’s edge.

These victories are wonderfully appreciated – and used – by the community. But climate change has called into question the duration of these hard-fought results.

Predictions of climate change, using the Boston Harbor Flood Risk Model, determine that 36% of Chelsea is in a flood risk area. This drops to 42% in 2030 and 49% in 2070. The Island End River Walk, which we fought so hard to win, was underwater just a few years ago during the winter storms of 2018. New England Produce Center, a wholesale product distribution center serving all of New England and parts of southern Canada.

On the left, the promenade and the Island End River Park, are flooded in January 2018 (GreenRoots);  and floodwaters reach the New England Produce Center during the January 2018 storms (Matt Frank).
On the left, the promenade and the Island End River Park, are flooded in January 2018 (GreenRoots); and floodwaters reach the New England Produce Center during the January 2018 storms (Matt Frank).

The same waterfront land that we reclaimed through the Chapter 91 process is now in a struggle against time, nature and displacement. GreenRoots, in conjunction with the Mystic River Watershed Association and the towns of Chelsea and Everett, are working diligently to prioritize the Island End River for resources and action. The climate adaptation strategies we develop will cost millions of dollars to implement, but they will protect critical infrastructure and prevent our residents from being displaced by climatic migrations.

Most, if not all, of the east coast is feeling the effects of climate change from rising sea levels and flooding. Yet in Chelsea, these impacts seem more threatening, more pervasive.

Before the pandemic, 24% of Chelsea residents fell below the federal poverty level. It’s almost certainly not anymore (Chelsea families owed more than $ 10 million in return of rent and mortgage payments). When (not if) extreme weather conditions occur, Chelsea families will be much less likely than wealthier communities to recover from significant damage to their homes and workplaces. Without stable income, significant savings and home insurance, the chances of a rebound for Chelsea families are practically nil. A life of working, saving and struggling could be lost in a single storm surge. Members of my community will be driven from their homes, from their neighborhoods, from the waterfronts they have worked so hard to access.

Without stable income, significant savings and home insurance, the chances of a rebound for Chelsea families are practically nil.

In addition, the New England Produce Center, a vital part of the New England economy and home to over 1,000 jobs for locals, could find itself underwater and shut down for days. Market Basket, where hundreds of Chelsea residents are employed and where thousands of shoppers from outside Chelsea come to shop, is also in an area of ​​potential flooding. As is the MGH Chelsea Health Center. Rising waters will not maneuver around large industries, like the two large oil storage terminals in Chelsea along the creek. The risks to health and the environment posed by drilled reservoirs due to climate change are formidable.

The world has seen the impacts of Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy. Chelsea families are experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. COVID-19 has demonstrated what a lack of investment, a lack of prioritization looks like in low-income communities and communities of color.

As Chelsea and communities like ours regain strength from the ravages of the pandemic, we are reminded that we must keep fighting, every day. We will fight oppressive systems that put us at increased risk of climate and public health risks. We will fight for resources to implement climate adaptation. We will fight to ensure that our residents are housed in a stable manner. We will fight for our community, for our livelihood, for our lives.

We hope that the victories will go well beyond 2030 and 2070.

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About Edward Fries

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