By Anaridis Rodriguez

CHELSEA (CBS) – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it will install monitors in Chelsea to study air quality.

City leaders and environmental activists say the information could further explore the connection between the exposure to high levels of pollution and corresponding health impacts. Chelsea, which for years has been marred by pollution issues, has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in Massachusetts.

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“We never thought it would be a pandemic, we always thought it would be a climate crisis. But really the impacts have been the same,” said Maria Belen Power, an environmental activist — and the associate executive director of GreenRoots, a community-based non-profit. “It’s the poor folks, communities of color, non-English speakers, who were hit first, worst, and are having a hard time bouncing back.”

Last week, in a letter to congressional lawmakers, the EPA announced it will work with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) to install air monitors that will track levels of pollution in the city.

Chelsea (WBZ-TV)

EPA Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel said they would also, “address potential particulate matter emissions, associated with recent demolition activities as well as concerns about overall air quality in Chelsea.”

The letter is a response to a recent request by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, the pair pushed for the agency to take immediate action.

“It’s a question of environmental justice; Chelsea has always been left behind. Boston has three air monitors, Chelsea has none,” said Senator Ed Markey. “It’s now much more clear that the higher levels of coronavirus in Chelsea are also tied to the higher levels particulate matter, [and] to the higher levels of other pollution sources, that then make those people more vulnerable to contracting coronavirus. It’s all tied together.”

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Among those pushing for change is Chelsea City Council President Roy Avellaneda, one of many concerned city leaders who called on federal legislators for help. “The health data that we’ve received, our rates of asthma, rates of pulmonary disease, is much higher than nearby communities,” said Avellaneda. “It pointed out that there’s a factor here. We can finally get at least a real number of how bad the air is here and we can trace what are the contributing factors.”

Tobin Bridge (WBZ-TV)

Located north of Boston, Chelsea is nestled alongside the Mystic River, Logan Airport and the Tobin Bridge.

Founded in 1739, the 2.5 square miles served as a “rural resort and retreat for the Boston elite.” A digital chronicle of Boston’s immigration history, Global Boston, traces Irish and Canadian immigrants back to groups of early settlers. By the turn of the century, Chelsea underwent an industrial boom.

Today, officials estimate about 45,000 people, mostly working-class Latino immigrants, call Chelsea home — and so do multiple industries. The community continues to maintain one of the highest transmission rates in the state. Early in the pandemic, its infection rate was comparable to those in New York City’s hardest hit boroughs.

“We hold 100 percent of the jet fuel for Logan International Airport; we hold 70 to 80 percent of the region’s home heating fuel. We have the largest road salt pile in the northeast, and we also have one of the largest produce distribution centers in the country,” said Maria Belen Power.

As a result, tens of thousands of trucks drive in and out of the hub each day. And their exhaust is just one source of the pollution. Since 2018, residents have been dealing with dust from demolition at the site of MassDOT’s Rt. 1 overhaul. Back in May, we spoke with one longtime resident who one night woke up to cars and homes coated in silica dust. Transportation officials have since committed to better containment measures.

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“We’ve been sounding the alarms on environmental justice, public health, and our air quality for two decades. And it really took a pandemic for folks to realize that it’s real,” Power said. “That when the air is polluted, when you have social determinants of health, and when you get hit by a pandemic, it really uncovers the inequities.”

Anaridis Rodriguez