Vermont legislators discuss proposal for environmental justice policy

The proposed bill, SB 148, would be the state’s first environmental justice policy.

As one of the last states without an environmental justice policy, Vermont legislators have started working toward changing that. The state’s Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy took high-level testimony about the need for the bill, SB 148, the week of Jan. 24 and have since begun the process of examining the bill’s language.

As currently drafted, The Vermont Digger reports the bill includes a number of new requirements that ensure frontline communities would be able to access environmental benefits and be able to fairly participate in public discussions.

“We shouldn’t be making our decisions based on who raises their hand to participate in something, who seeks out a grant, who talks to the state the most,” says Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale. “We need to start to look at, where is distress? Where are those communities, and how do we get the resources to them?”

According to the bill’s findings, water contaminants, such as lead and the toxic chemical group PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are “disproportionately found in Vermont communities with higher populations of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and individuals with low income.”

SB 148 proposes establishing an advisory council on environmental justice within the state’s Agency of Natural Resources to be made up of state officials, members of environmental groups, social justice organizations, representatives from mobile home parks, members of Native American tribes and others affected by environmental impacts.

The bill also would require the state to deploy a mapping tool that would “measure environmental burdens at the smallest geographic level practicable,” reports The Vermont Digger.

By July 1, 2024, all of the state’s agencies would be required to adopt a community engagement plan, which would examine the way agencies interact and provide for environmental justice communities.

Of the state’s eligible environmental, renewable energy, climate mitigation, transportation and climate resilience funds, the state would need to spend at least 55 percent in environmental justice communities, the bill states.

Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says the agency and the department are committed to seeing the work through. The amount of time agency staff are currently able to allocate to it, he says, is “insufficient to do the level of work necessary that’s envisioned in this bill, and so we should think through that carefully.”

Those who have been working on the bill encouraged committee members to consider it a small step forward.

This bill “represents truly a modest initial step in that direction and to create that blueprint, that framework, so that we have in place a launching pad to do much, much more,” Elena Mihaly, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, says. The organization recently helped revise the language in the bill.

“This is a critical time to act to build that infrastructure,” she says.

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