Interview with Deneen Simpson of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

This interview with Deneen Simpson, Director of Environmental Justice for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, first appeared in our tenth print annual, available here. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about your personal perspective on environmental justice and how that has informed your work?

Deneen Simpson
Living in an environmental justice (EJ) community and being aware of the number of abandoned buildings, overburdened permitted facilities, lack of green or open space in EJ communities demonstrates to me the need for action. I work to support partnerships with other state agencies, federal agencies, EJ advocates, and EJ community groups to help these communities fight for and promote social justice and equity and inclusion for their communities. There are a number of facilities that would never get permitted today in certain communities across the Commonwealth due to historic siting (Editors’ Note: Siting is the process of choosing a location for a facility) that cannot be undone. Active community advocacy can result in siting elsewhere, but this sometimes does not happen. EJ communities are defined as low-income, minority, and English-Isolated residents by the Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs (EOEEA)—factors that can limit citizen involvement and advocacy because of constraints that contribute to lack of information and challenges to submit comments.

There is a myth that people that live in EJ communities have no interest in their communities or that they do not want to be involved. What I have found over the years working in the EJ Office, and as an individual that has lived in an EJ community, is the reality is quite the contrary; residents of EJ communities are the most passionate and committed individuals. They want environmental justice—that is to live in a community with fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, and not to have an unfair share of environmental burdens (ABC facility on one corner, XYZ facility next door and/or down the street, abandoned buildings here and there, and closed-down gas stations, etc.) without having a balance of as many environmental benefits. EJ community residents want the same opportunities as non-EJ communities—bike paths, walking trails, clean parks, open space/green space, and viable businesses in the neighborhood. They also want the opportunity to have a voice in the decision-making and planning processes as well as the ability/opportunity to participate in programs, projects, or initiatives that will affect them. As the Director of Environmental Justice at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), I do my best to ensure that MassDEP as an agency is inclusive and provides opportunities and information to EJ communities in the work that we do. We strive to offer space for voices and a “seat at the table” to the EJ communities across the Commonwealth while building trust, capacity, and being transparent.

Looking at Massachusetts’s environmental justice goals, what are the areas where you feel the most progress has been made?

Deneen Simpson
At MassDEP and EOEEA, I feel we have made the most progress in raising awareness of the importance of environmental justice. The ability to identify EJ populations, the demographics of EJ communities (creating maps, identifying local community EJ groups and interested and active individual advocates). Using the 2010 US Census and gathering statistics of EJ communities is critical, and having the information accessible to MassDEP staff so they can use it and feel confident when conducting work in EJ communities. We provide translation, interpreter services, offer telephonic interpreter services, and translation of key documents when applicable. MassDEP and EOEEA have great tools that staff can use to identify where the EJ communities are located across the Commonwealth and which criteria a community meets. EOEEA also has an Environmental Justice Policy that requires all EOEEA agencies (including MassDEP) to make EJ an integral component to the extent possible and allowable by law in all of the work of the agency. Agency staff are more familiar with the EJ communities in the Commonwealth, have more informational tools, and are becoming more sensitive and aware of the outreach and community engagement requirements when our work is conducted in an EJ community.


Conversely, what are the greatest challenges ahead?

eneen Simpson
The greatest challenge at MassDEP is the ability to provide funding and or grants to EJ communities to assist with remediation, tree planting, building parks, open space, and greenways, etc. to assist EJ communities in overcoming the disproportionately overburdened communities they live in. As an agency, the ability to provide funding to assist individuals or communities is always scarce but always on our wish list. The greatest challenge ahead is to no longer have communities in the Commonwealth that are overburdened with more than their fair share of facilities that emit pollutants that cause health issues/concerns, lack of green and open space, limited grocery store options, drinking water issues, inadequate public transportation options, and a high number of abandoned buildings with contaminated soil with no remediation or rehabilitation in the future. Everyone should be entitled to local benefits regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, how much money they earn, or how well they speak English.  If people choose to live in a community because it is diverse, that is a choice, but it should not be the only choice because it is the only place they can afford to live.

Another challenge is taking into consideration overburdened and disproportionately affected communities in the permitting process. As mentioned already, due to historic siting and existing infrastructure, some projects are allowed to be permitted by law even though the new project can in some cases add to already overburdened communities.

What are some of the ways that residents can engage with the Commonwealth’s environmental justice programs?

Deneen Simpson
There are many ways residents can engage with the Commonwealth’s environmental justice programs. They can contact MassDEP and/or EEA for information and check out the websites. Contact local environmental justice organizations across the Commonwealth or local organizations right in their own communities. Learn about what is going with environmental justice at the national level and the local level. Learn from other organizations how to get involved and remain involved.

In an effort to keep the EJ groups and individuals informed, I share via email or by telephone the EJ information I receive (i.e., trainings, webinars, grant opportunities, vacancies on boards, commissions, employment) with interested parties on my ever-growing EJ distribution list (which I am always looking to add to and am constantly updating.) When I have information concerning grant or training opportunities, I will send an email blast to ensure that the EJ groups and individuals are aware of these opportunities. I also ask my current EJ contacts for names of other EJ activists, community leaders, individuals and organizations that I can add to my distribution list, as I am always trying to build my EJ contacts.

How are you reaching out to residents who might not even be aware that such programs exist?

Deneen Simpson
Part of my job duties as the Director of Environmental Justice is to attend EJ workshops, trainings, grant interviews, attend webinars and conferences, as well as agreeing to participate in speaking engagements across the Commonwealth where I talk about MassDEP’s EJ program and the work that we are doing at the agency and at our Secretariat level. The speaking engagements are a great opportunity to inform residents that may not be aware of MassDEP’s EJ program and give them the opportunity to learn about EJ, invite them to ask questions, share my contact information, and get them involved and engaged with EJ at MassDEP and EOEEA. It is also a great opportunity to learn about challenges and issues concerning environmental justice and how they can get involved. Communication is vital to expand the EJ program so I am constantly networking and doing what I can to improve access to information.

Economic growth often leaves behind the most vulnerable populations. Massachusetts and the Boston metro area, in particular, are certainly not exempt from this problem. How do you see environmental justice policies and programs supporting economic justice, responsible development, and increased opportunity for those who need it most?

Deneen Simpson
The more people know about environmental justice and learn about the EJ program at MassDEP and EOEEA, the more empowered the EJ communities and its residents are. The 2017 EEA EJ Policy requires EOEEA and its agencies, including MassDEP, to consider environmental justice in all of the work that we do and to enforce environmental standards consistently across the Commonwealth. We are required to include the EJ communities and engage with them when conducting our key activities via public engagement and outreach. As an agency, we inform EJ communities (via Twitter, the internet, email, distribution lists, and newspapers) of grant opportunities, green jobs, and other funding opportunities that are available in an effort to be inclusive as well as providing opportunities for engagement and involvement from the community. As a regulatory agency, we strive to provide opportunities for disproportionately overburdened communities and we are always looking for ways to improve our communication and engagement tools with EJ communities with our choices of terminology, outreach efforts, assistance with capacity building, being transparent, and being inclusive and providing assistance with language needs as appropriate. It is essential that we offer our information in terminology that is easily understood to ensure opportunities for public engagement. MassDEP welcomes feedback and input from the EJ residents to help us better serve them in an effort to form a collaborative relationship with beneficial outreach efforts for all. As the Director of Environmental Justice, I participate in a variety of calls (on a monthly and quarterly basis and other times as needed) that include all of New England, as well as states across the country, where we share EJ issues/concerns, successes, and failures at both the state and federal level. Not all agencies have EJ programs and some agencies have a different definition of environmental justice, but we can in some circumstances replicate other state or local agencies’ successes to fit our EJ community needs and requirements. Sharing and hearing from other states, municipal agencies, EJ residents, and organizations is a great way to build capacity and expand knowledge to support and increase the resources for our most vulnerable populations.

As an agency, MassDEP has been the leader or partnered with other state agencies and the US EPA on funding opportunities and initiatives that were/are targeted towards economic support for and development in environmental justice communities. A few examples include:

State Revolving Fund Loan Program (SRF): Offers affordable loan options to cities and towns to improve water supply infrastructure and drinking water safety; and to help them to comply with federal and state water quality requirements that deal with wastewater treatment plans and collection systems, and green infrastructure. Additionally, the SRF supplies financial assistance to address communities with septic system problems.

Lead in Schools Initiative–Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water: Cooperative program created due to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Not strictly for EJ communities but has an EJ component. This initiative was launched to help MA public schools voluntarily test for lead and copper in drinking water.

Waste & Recycling Grants & Assistance: Although this program is not strictly an EJ program, it offers incentives for over-burdened communities to develop recycling systems and invest in recycling to the benefit of the community.

Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI): Regional collaboration of twelve Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia to improve transportation, especially in underserved communities, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as other types of air pollution. The program will result in revenue that can be invested to reduce emissions and support low carbon transportation. MassDEP has held 11 community engagement workshops in 10 EJ communities to solicit ideas and feedback on the best way to design this program based on principles of equity. This initiative is ongoing.

Finally, Massachusetts is often at the forefront of progressive policies and serves as a model for similar programs elsewhere. Are there resources available that people outside of Massachusetts could use to jumpstart activist efforts in their own communities?

Deneen Simpson
There is a specific grassroots organization located in Massachusetts that is looking to expand into other communities and other states. This organization (Groundwork USA) has a few locally based groups/organizations in the Commonwealth.

As I mentioned in the previous question, I participate in monthly calls with the US EPA and other state agencies to discuss environmental justice. This is where we hear about EJ successes, projects, and issues from other states and the US EPA. It is a win-win opportunity where we can learn from other states about EJ opportunities without reinventing the wheel. We often hear about community-based efforts that include citizen science, collaboration with academia, other state and federal agencies and locals where great EJ work is being done and can be duplicated in other states.

There are a number of great EJ organizations across the Commonwealth that do great work fighting for and with the EJ residents. I am fortunate that I have the ability to connect with these individuals and organizations to ensure that they are aware of what MassDEP is doing.

Additionally, I am often looking at other states’ EJ webpages for ideas and information that can be helpful to MassDEP. I often contact Massachusetts EJ organizations and community leaders for input when MassDEP is conducting public hearings, listening sessions, or community workshops to obtain recommendations for the best locations to hold such meetings and for recommendations about who we should include and who we are missing. These organizations are in the community and have built trust with the residents and in some cases have helped to form some of the grassroots organizations here in Massachusetts. Below are links to some (but not all) very active grassroots EJ organizations located across the Commonwealth:

Coalition for Social Justice:

Groundwork USA (a national organization):

Groundwork Lawrence:

Arise for Social Justice:

Neighbor to Neighbor:

There is also a federal organization, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), that was formed in 1993 that provides advice and recommendations to the US EPA. I have had the pleasure to speak at and participate in some of their conference calls and training webinars. I have learned about a number of EJ issues through NEJAC, including projects and partnerships across the country. Residents from outside of Massachusetts could contact their state environmental agency and the US EPA regional office to find out more information about EJ at both the state and national level in addition to utilizing the agency webpages where there is a lot of information about NEJAC and the US EPA’s environmental justice program.

MassDEP’s EJ webpage:

US EPA EJ webpage:

National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC):



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