On Earth Day eve, environmental groups give Baker a middling grade
BOSTON >> Citing "severely understaffed" state agencies, six groups gave Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's energy and environmental affairs wing a grade of C on Thursday for its performance during the governor's first year in office.
The assessment, released a day before Earth Day, reflects a mix of ratings by the groups on different issue areas, including energy, water, toxics, land protection, environmental justice and the state budget. The grades earned by Baker's team ranged from a B-plus for electric vehicles programs and for a tree-planting program known as Greening the Gateway Cities to D grades given for gas pipelines, toxic chemical reduction and water pollution control.
"Inadequate funding and staffing, combined with adverse policy decisions documented in this report, are creating a crisis in terms of protecting natural resources and combatting climate change," Nancy Goodman, vice president for policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
The report was issued by the Environmental League, Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, Environment Massachusetts, Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and Massachusetts Sierra club.
In response to the groups' analysis, a spokesman for Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton highlighted some of the office's work.
"While the Secretary is appreciative of outside opinions, he is especially proud of the efforts of the Baker-Polito Administration to expand access to public lands and outdoor opportunities for urban youth, increase funding for state parks, invest in energy efficiency and enhance the state's solar capacity while [pursuing] comprehensive energy legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to supply the Commonwealth with renewable, affordable hydroelectric power," EEA communications director Peter Lorenz said in a statement to the News Service.
Baker has proposed legislation to facilitate the procurement of hydropower (S 1965) and indicated an interest in offshore wind as ways to bring more renewable energy into the state's power mix. The authors of the report card assert that the state is still not making the "progress needed to transition to a clean energy future" and urge a greater focus on wind power.
Specifically, the groups want to see Baker support both the elimination of the cap on solar net-metering and legislation that would include a procurement of at least 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030 and move the state to 40 percent renewable energy by the same year.
"We're calling on Governor Baker to put his money where his mouth is and invest in renewable energy rather than siding with the utilities and fossil fuel industry," said Veronica Eady of the Conservation Law Foundation. "It is urgent that he confront the root causeses of climate change and fully fund those agencies tasked with protecting us from its impacts. The people of Massachusetts deserve better."
While running for office, Baker pledged to increase spending on environmental programs to 1 percent of total state spending over the four years of his term. The environmental groups say that Baker's first two budgets moved in the "wrong direction," slashing environmental funds as revenues and overall state spending increase.
"Neither of the administration's two budgets to date have come close to this amount and in fact the Governor's latest budget cut environmental funding by an additional 7%," the report reads. "Reduced resources translates into reduced capacity to protect the environment."
Baker's fiscal 2017 budget proposal cuts funding for environmental agencies by $17 million, which could threaten their ability to carry out their duties, according to the report.
The report also dings the Baker administration as "weak" on water policy, pointing to an early retirement initiative that the environmental groups say led to a loss of 108 staff members at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, while 34 new employees were hired to fill some of the vacated positions. The groups said that experienced regulatory staff is needed to monitor water quality and issue and enforce water permits.
"Like other states around the country, Massachusetts is facing severe, and growing challenges with water. More than half our rivers are polluted, one-fifth run dry when they shouldn't, our water infrastructure is falling apart, and on top of that we've got droughts and floods from climate change. We call on the administration to tackle these problems, which will require investment, commitment, and stronger partnerships with the environmental community," Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said in a statement.
The highest grade given on a water-related issue was a C for stormwater management, while a sustainable water management initiative earned an "incomplete." The report described the initiative as a step forward, but only if it is implemented "vigorously and consistently."
On Thursday, the state's Department of Environmental Protection announced $385,000 in grants to 10 communities to complete asset maintenance plans on their drinking water, wastewater or stormwater systems.
"Every day, the public relies on local drinking water and sewer systems to function seamlessly. So when one of these systems fails, it has a major impact on residents and their daily lives," Baker said in a statement announcing the grants to Carver, Brockton, Fall River, Haverhill, Lawrence, Marion, New Bedford, Southampton, Walpole and Wareham. "These planning grants will help to avert a crisis before it happens."
Earlier this week, the Baker administration also announced an expansion of the Greening the Gateway Cities program with an investment of $12 million over three years to plant 20,000 trees in Brockton, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Leominster, New Bedford, Pittsfield and Quincy. So far, the program has planted 3,700 trees on streets in Chelsea, Revere, Fall River, Chicopee and Holyoke.
The environmental groups' assessment said the urban tree-planting program "will reap climate benefits over the long-term" as the trees take up carbon dioxide and eventually lead to lower heating and cooling costs by providing cooling shade in the summer and buffering out cold and wind in the winter.
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