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Lawmakers, governor weigh first ever environmental justice policy for Vermont

Vermont lawmakers and advocates stand in masks behind Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who is speaking at a podium. Behind them  is a large painting in a gold frame. They're in a grand room at the Vermont Statehouse.
Abagael Giles
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VPR
Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale joins advocates and colleagues from the Vermont House of Representatives in calling for the House to advance a bill she introduced last session, which creates the first ever environmental justice policy for the state of Vermont.

Vermont has a reputation for strong environmental regulations. But it’s one of the last states in New England to have an environmental justice policy on the books, even though the EPA has been pushing for it to happen 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 farmworker organizers before him.

When he visits farms across Vermont, he hears from people who are worried about the long hours they work in hot, stuffy dairy barns, handling chemicals like copper sulphate.

“You know, you’re stuck in the barn, breathing all of that,” Luna said. “People sharing respiratory issues, you know, problems that they have had.”

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

Toxic chemicals are the sort of thing an environmental justice advocate would call an “environmental burden.” In contrast, Vermont’s rich soils and cold swimming holes and hiking trails — those are environmental benefits.

Here, like across the country, some people have a lot of access to benefits, while others tend to get stuck with environmental harms. It’s a problem that climate change is making worse.

A very narrow dirt footpath winds through an understory of grass and ferns, between leafy deciduous trees in a Northern Hardwood forest that are just starting to yellow as they start to turn.
Abagael Giles
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VPR
Access to natural spaces is one example of an environmental benefit. Not all communities or people in Vermont enjoy equal access to amenities like recreational trails, like The Long Trail.

Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale hopes a bill before the Legislature now will start to change that.

“Environmental justice is very much about who is at the table. And so that means it’s very much about how you set the table, and who feels welcome at the table,” Ram Hinsdale said.

She introduced the legislation, which was crafted by a collaborative of community organizers and academics that included the REJOICE Project — Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise, in partnership with the VT Renews BIPOC Council. They spent several months over the course of 2020 gathering input from people on the front lines of climate change and pollution in Vermont.

More from VPR: How Vermont is — and isn’t — on track 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 to walk to, where their kids can play without the fear of their neighbors calling the police.

Mobile home residents in the Northeast Kingdom said they need clean water and better broadband. Otherwise, they can’t even find out about public meetings to attend to fix their water.

Migrant farmworkers said they need translated instructions for how to use the chemicals they work with safely — and clarity about what to do if people lose heat or running water.

“We need a legitimate process where those voices can be heard. And that feedback can not only just be feedback, but it can actually be transformative.”
Abel Luna, organizer and education coordinator with Migrant Justice

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

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

Jennifer Byrne, an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School and fellow in their environmental justice clinic, helped organize the meetings. She says it’s important that frontline communities get to lead this work.

“If we want to move forward together, if we want to build a more equitable world, if we want to create a just transition, then we need to be able to slow down long enough to listen to people, respect people," she said.

According to the left-leaning Center for American Progress, 76% percent of Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous or people of color live in “nature deprived” census blocks. That’s compared with just 27% of white residents.

Mobile home parks make up about 7% of the housing stock in our state. But they were 40% of the damage borne out by Tropical Storm Irene.

A white metal screen door lies in the foreground, in a photo of debris stripped off a mobile home during Tropical Storm Irene. The scene is of the aftermath, and shows the home in demolition.
Toby Talbot
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Associated Press File
A mobile home in demolition in Weston's Mobile Home Park in Berlin, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

A recent study from the University of Vermont found people who do not identify as white are seven times more likely than white residents to report going without heat.

This bill would make it the official policy of Vermont that no community should have more than their fair share of access to environmental benefits — or harms. It also says every Vermonter should be able to meaningfully participate in decisions about the environment.

“Whatever we move towards, we need to take time in order to build systems that are going to work for the people," said Abel Luna with Migrant Justice.

What does the environmental justice bill do?

One key way this bill aims to fix these problems is by paying people who aren’t usually able to participate in public hearings to share their ideas for solutions.

It also creates two advisory groups: one of staff from different state agencies to coordinate environmental justice work at the state, and one of Vermonters from environmental justice communities to review and give feedback on policy decisions at the state.

It also funds a full-time staff position at the Agency of Natural Resources to make sure the state is complying with the Civil Rights Act.

Advocates would like to see the members of the advisory council get a stipend of $200 per day, similar to what members of the Vermont Community Broadband Board get.

The bill calls for regular audits of state environmental spending, to create a record of where investments are going and to whom. It also sets a goal to make sure environmental justice communities are getting their share.

“I think it is a model of how other legislation can be crafted.”
Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP

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

The Scott administration hasn’t yet said if it supports the bill, but joined advocates in pushing lawmakers for more funding.

Advocates weigh in

Environmental justice advocates in Vermont say right now, without this policy, the people at the front of climate change in our state aren’t getting to weigh in on climate policies.

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

“I think it is a model of how other legislation can be crafted,” Schultz said. “Because when we look at environmental impact, and we talk about environmental justice, we know that that’s racial justice.”

When people are systematically left out of decision making, they have to find their own solutions to the problems they face — and they lose trust.

“It’s how to make that participation and engagement sustainable for all. That is definitely an effort that we have to make as a society.”
Sandrine Kibuey, director of housing advocacy, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity

Sandrine Kibuey directs the housing advocacy program at Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. She led the outreach to mobile home residents for this bill.

She says everyone benefits when the most vulnerable in society get to shape policy decisions.

Kibuey says this environmental justice policy is really just the start of a much longer journey for Vermont.

More from VPR: 'Building The Plane While We Fly It': BIPOC Community Organizers Shrink The Gap On Vaccine Equity

“It’s how to make that participation and engagement sustainable for all. That is definitely an effort that we have to make as a society,” she said. “And I do think that we are starting to see the light.”

The Legislature is scheduled to vote on the environmental justice bill today. If it’s approved, it would go next to the governor’s desk.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

Corrected: May 11, 2022 at 12:04 PM EDT
The VT Renews BIPOC Council played a major role in shaping the definitions in the environmental justice bill. This story has been updated to reflect that.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate change and environment reporter. She joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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