Despite reservations about funding, Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday signed Vermont’s first environmental justice policy into law.
The new policy is designed to ease the burden on communities that face disproportionate impacts from environmental stressors such as pollution, natural disasters and the impacts of climate change.
“It is the policy of the State of Vermont that no segment of the population of the State should, because of its racial, cultural, or economic makeup, bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens or be denied an equitable share of environmental benefits,” the new law states.
The legislation requires the state to “provide the opportunity for the meaningful participation of all individuals with particular attention to environmental justice focus populations, in the development, implementation, or enforcement of any law, regulation, or policy.”
It also establishes a new mapping tool that would identify communities where environmental burdens have disproportionate impact on Vermonters. Similar tools are already deployed in 17 states, according to the text of the bill, S.148.
Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, who introduced the bill, said more than 15 years of work went into the legislation, and it “should represent a major step forward.”
“When we think about what rural environmental injustice looks like, Vermont has classic examples of areas that are left behind,” she said. Those include areas “that experience greater flooding, where communities who don't speak English don't know how to get help, where people feel fairly distant from the environmental regulatory framework that's supposed to make sure they're healthy.”
Two new groups — an Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and an Interagency Environmental Justice Committee — will be charged with guiding state agencies toward investing more in impacted communities.
Bindu Panikkar, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources who has studied environmental justice in Vermont, said she was disappointed about a lack of “sufficient funding for community engagement” in the bill.
Participation, she wrote in an email, “is a key political capability necessary to build true democracy and also justice.” Panikkar hopes the new advisory council will be effective in bringing meaningful solutions to those who are most impacted by environmental harms and ensure they have access to environmental benefits.
“But still what an accomplishment to have our first EJ bill approved, it is indeed an opportunity to do some great work,” she wrote. “The S.148 bill defines our basic aspirations to build an environmental justice focus in the state. More important is how we are going to be rolling this bill out in the state.”
Earlier in the legislative session, members of Scott’s administration had expressed concerns about a lack of funding in the bill for the Agency of Natural Resources, which is now charged with carrying out much of the policy. The final text of the bill resolved some of those concerns, according to Julie Moore, the agency’s secretary.
A previous version of the bill included $3 million, which would have funded more than a dozen full-time positions at the Agency of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Board and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. (The Natural Resources Board oversees Act 250, the state’s landmark land use and development law.)
In the final version, lawmakers reduced funding for the work to $750,000. That sum covers the mapping tool and two new positions at the Agency of Natural Resources.
Moore said the final version of the bill includes “sufficient resources for year one.” While another version directed the agency to reassign vacant positions from other areas of the agency, the new version designates two “new” positions, plus a third that would start later in the fiscal year.
Still, she said, some of the funding is only allocated for a single year, rather than being baked into the agency’s annual budget.
“I am hopeful that, in the Legislature's resounding votes for this measure, there's an implicit commitment to prioritize the continued funding of this work,” Moore said.
“The Governor shares the goals within the environmental justice bill, but continues to be concerned by its unfunded mandates. However, we believe that could be resolved in the future,” Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said in an email earlier this month.
In Vermont, studies show that people who are Black, Indigenous and people of color are far more likely to live in nature deprived areas, were seven times more likely to go without heat in the last year, and were seven times less likely to own solar panels than white Vermonters, according to the bill.
Mobile homes are often located in flood zones. Hurricane Irene destroyed more than 561 mobile homes, and while they only made up 7.2 percent of the state’s housing stock at the time, mobile homes were approximately 40 percent of sites affected by the storm.
“If we can truly implement these guidelines presented in this bill on distributional, procedural, and recognition justice, we can surely do transformative work of building a more just, equitable and sustainable future for all,” Panikkar said.
Ram Hinsdale agreed the effectiveness of the bill will come down to its implementation.
“Everyone should watch for implementation,” she said. “Those who advocated, but aren't directly impacted, might feel like they can stop and celebrate and let this go, now that the bill has passed. But now is really the time to hold the system accountable to the step forward that we've taken.”
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