State Legislature and Governor Consider Vermont’s First-Ever Environmental Justice Policy – Advice Eating

Vermont is known for strict environmental regulations. But it’s one of the last New England states to have an environmental justice policy on the books, though the EPA has been pushing for it since 2016. Lawmakers are weighing a bill this week that would create one.

Abel Luna works for Migrant Justice, a human rights organization representing immigrant farmers in Vermont. His father and grandfather were agricultural labor organizers before him.

Visiting farms across Vermont, he hears from people concerned about the long hours they work in hot, stuffy milk barns handling chemicals like copper sulfate.

“You know, you’re stuck in the barn breathing it all in,” Luna said. “People who share respiratory issues, you know, issues that they’ve had.”

More from VPR: Survey finds most Vermonters expect major impacts from climate change over the next 30 years

Toxic chemicals are one thing Environmental Justice Advocate would call it an “environmental impact”. In contrast, Vermont’s rich soils and cold swimming spots and hiking trails are environmental benefits.

Here, as across the country, some people have many benefits while others are more likely to encounter environmental harm. It’s a problem that climate change is making worse.

Access to natural spaces is an example of an environmental benefit. Not all communities or people in Vermont have equal access to amenities such as recreational trails like The Long Trail.

Chittenden County Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale hopes that a invoice before the legislature will now begin to change this.

“Environmental justice is very much about who is at the table. So that means how you set the table and who makes you feel welcome at the table is very important,” said Ram Hinsdale.

She presented the legislation, which was drafted by a collaboration of community organizers and academics the REJOICE project — Opportunities for rural environmental justice informed by community expertise. They’ve spent several months throughout 2021 collecting input from people on the front lines of climate change and pollution in Vermont.

More from VPR: How Vermont is on track – and not – to reduce its share of climate-warming emissions

And what they heard: In Burlington, members of the Somali Bantu community said they need more safe green spaces that they can walk to, where their children can play without fear that their neighbors will call the police.

Mobile home residents in the north-east of the UK said they needed clean water and better broadband. Otherwise, they may not even know about public meetings they must attend to fix their water.

Migrant farm workers said they need translated instructions on how to safely handle the chemicals they work with – and clarity on what to do when people lose heat or running water.

“We need a legitimate process by which these voices can be heard. And that feedback can’t just be feedback, it can actually be transformative.”

Abel Luna, organizer and education coordinator at Migrant Justice

And in all cases, people had to know: Who can they call the state? Migrant Justice’s Abel Luna says that’s the key.

“We need a legitimate process where those voices can be heard and that feedback can’t just be feedback, it can actually be transformative,” he said.

Jennifer Byrne, an associate professor at Vermont Law School and a fellow at her environmental justice clinic, helped organize the meetings. She says it’s important for frontline communities to lead this work.

“If we’re going to move forward together, if we’re going to build a fairer world, if we’re going to make a just transition, then we need to be able to slow down long enough to listen to people and respect them,” she said.

According to the left-leaning Center for American Progress, 76 percent of Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous or Colored live in “deprived” census blocks. This compares to only 27% of white residents.

Mobile home parking spaces make up about 7% of the housing stock in our federal state. But they accounted for 40% of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

A white metal screen door lies in the foreground in a photograph of debris ripped from a mobile home during Tropical Storm Irene.  The scene is from the aftermath and shows the house being demolished.

Toby Talbot

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Associated Press File

A mobile home being demolished at the Weston Mobile Home Park in Berlin after Tropical Storm Irene.

A recently to learn from the University of Vermont found that people who do not identify as white are seven times more likely than white residents to report that they can do without heat.

That invoice would make it official Vermont policy that no community should receive more than its fair share of environmental benefits – or harms. It also states that every Vermonter should be able to meaningfully participate in decisions about the environment.

“Whatever we aim for, we need to take time to build systems that work for people,” said Abel Luna of Migrant Justice.

What does the Environmental Justice Act do?

One important way this bill aims to solve these problems is by paying people who are typically unable to attend public hearings to share their ideas for solutions.

Two advisory groups will also be established: one made up of employees from various state agencies to coordinate environmental justice work in the state, and one made up of Vermonters from environmental justice communities to review and provide feedback on policy decisions in the state.

It also funds a full-time position at the Agency of Natural Resources to ensure the state complies with the Civil Rights Act.

Proponents would like advisory board members to receive a $200-a-day stipend, similar to Vermont Community Broadband Board members.

The bill calls for regular reviews of government environmental spending to record where the investments are going and to whom. It also aims to ensure that environmental justice communities get their share.

“I think it’s a model for how other laws can be designed.”

Mia Schultz, President of the Rutland Area NAACP

The bill directs the Agency of Natural Resources to create a tool for mapping environmental damage in Vermont by 2025, similar to how the state now maps resources like wetlands or prime agricultural soils.

The Scott administration has not yet said whether it supports the bill, but has joined supporters in urging lawmakers for more funding.

Proponents intervene

Environmental justice advocates in Vermont say that without these policies, the people at the forefront of climate change in our state cannot intervene in climate policy at this time.

Mia Schultz, president of the NAACP’s Rutland chapter, says this bill has teeth, but is just a start.

“I think it’s a model for how other laws can be designed,” Schultz said. “Because when we look at the environmental impact and we talk about environmental justice, we know that’s racial justice.”

When people are systematically excluded from decision-making, they have to find their own solutions to the problems they face – and they lose confidence.

“It’s about making this participation and commitment sustainable for everyone. It’s definitely an effort we need to make as a society.”

Sandrine Kibuey, Director of Housing Association, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity

Sandrine Kibuey leads the Housing Advocacy program at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. She led the outreach to mobile home residents for this bill.

She says that everyone benefits when the most vulnerable in society can help shape political decisions.

Kibuey says these environmental justice policies are really just the beginning of a much longer journey for Vermont.

More from VPR: ‘Building the plane while we fly it’: BIPOC community organizers are narrowing the vaccine equality gap

“It’s about making this participation and commitment sustainable for everyone. It’s definitely an effort we need to make as a society,” she said. “And I think we’re starting to see the light.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the Environmental Justice Act today. If approved, it goes next to the governor’s desk.

Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

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