Interview and story by Tian Quinn; edited by Jessica Cook
In Salem State’s Geography and Sustainability department, Professor Marcos Luna takes an active role in developing his advocacy-based teaching practices to provide real-world examples in the classroom. For over two decades, Luna has researched environmental justice issues that have a practical value for addressing the changes that communities want to see.
In 2016, Luna began working with the community-based advocacy group Salem Alliance for the Environment (SAFE) to map data collected by Boston University researchers to document natural gas leaks in the city of Salem. A year later, in November 2017, Luna participated in a public forum to present the data analysis that addressed “The Hidden Costs of Salem’s Gas Leaks.” The data that Luna and SAFE presented identified more than two hundred thirty unrepaired gas leaks in Salem—leaks that are hazardous to environmental and human health and costly to taxpayers—and almost four times the number of leaks reported by National Grid, the city’s natural gas utility. This forum preceded the deadly Merrimack Valley gas explosions in September 2018, which disproportionately impacted Lawrence, a Massachusetts city that, like Salem, is populated with lower income residents, immigrants, and people of color. For Luna, mapping gas leaks in Salem near the gas-related explosions in Lawrence prompted him to investigate natural gas leaks and their relationship to social inequality on a state-wide level.
In March 2022, Luna published his investigation, “An environmental justice analysis of distribution-level natural gas leaks in Massachusetts, USA,” in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy with coauthor Dominic Nicholas, director of HEET (Home Energy Efficiency Team). The findings of Luna and Nicholas’s study, which are available to read or download via open access, find that marginalized communities across Massachusetts —like those comprised of people of color, low-income, and/or limited English-speaking residents—experience a disproportionately higher density of unrepaired gas leaks nearby when compared to higher income communities or those with higher percentages of White residents. The data confirm the environmental justice argument that environmental inequalities are closely aligned with social inequalities. Although gas leaks are largely invisible environmental burdens, Luna and Nicholas argue that these burdens, like so many others, are distributed inequitably.
Luna’s analysis was based on data made available by the state of Massachusetts, which is one of the few states in the country that legally requires utility companies to report detailed information about gas leaks. (In larger states with more pipelines, Luna notes, residents simply have to trust that utility companies are doing their job.) While reviewing the state-collected data for his article with Nicholas, Luna’s analysis revealed that gas leaks in marginalized communities were also being repaired at significantly slower rates than those in White communities as well as higher income areas, with race being a stronger predictor than income. Luna hypothesizes that such a disparity is a “squeaky wheel” issue: the communities who tend to make more noise with their complaints are typically serviced faster. But if a system continues to run on a squeaky wheel premise, Luna says, it continues to be a system with inequitable outcomes. To further explore this concept, Luna is collaborating with researchers in other states to examine how gas companies prioritize which leaks to repair first.
Professor Luna has long researched how energy production and consumption has unequally impacted marginalized communities. His 2008 Social Science Quarterly publication “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Distancing and the Geographic Relationship Between Electricity Consumption and Production in Massachusetts,” for example, examines the local relationships between proximity to energy production sites and inequality. In the article, Luna concludes that households consuming the most energy in Massachusetts are located furthest from power plants and experience the least environmental impact of their consumption. People who live closest to power plants, on the other hand, use the least amount of energy, yet experience the most environmental degradation.
Reports like “An environmental justice analysis of distribution-level natural gas leaks in Massachusetts, USA” can help inform lawmakers on the importance of data transparency and can be used to emphasize how aims for carbon neutrality, like Massachusetts’s pledge to be effectively emissions-free by 2050, must consider how such changes will affect the most vulnerable populations.
Luna’s most recent work reaffirms the message of environmental justice advocates that such inequality isn’t new; newer research, however, gives legitimacy to their arguments. As Luna's work underscores, there are a number of environmental inequities directly impacting marginalized communities. Reports like “An environmental justice analysis of distribution-level natural gas leaks in Massachusetts, USA” can help inform lawmakers on the importance of data transparency and can be used to emphasize how aims for carbon neutrality, like Massachusetts’s pledge to be effectively emissions-free by 2050, must consider how such changes will affect the most vulnerable populations.
Earlier this year, Luna was one of ten people appointed by the governor to sit on the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Advisory Council, where he will continue to advocate for equitable environmental policy changes through recommendations to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. As in all he does, Luna’s involvement in state-level environmental policy advocacy is underscored by the belief that justice-oriented work must have a practical value to communities now, rather than abstractly or in the long-term. As an advisor to state officials, Luna will continue to focus his pragmatic, community-centered aims on ensuring that voices of environmental concern from Massachusetts’s most marginalized communities are heard.
Even with his new appointment to the state advisory council, Luna emphasizes that his role as an educator at Salem State is his main priority. In the classroom, Luna employs his knowledge of environmental justice to encourage students at both the undergraduate and graduate level to consider how environmental issues are experienced differently by people in different circumstances, particularly along the lines of race, class, gender, and other social fault lines. At the graduate level, Luna is using this specific publication to outline the different kinds of research you can do and what the process of going from an idea to a question and a final product can consist of. These research opportunities are areas of interest that allow him to bring a practical value into the classroom and engage in the overarching and ongoing process of community-driven advocacy.
Thank you, Professor Luna, for sharing your work with us!
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