Legislators hear testimony on proposal for states first environmental justice policy by ReTime.org January 31, 2022 0 Shares 0 0 Vermont is one of the last states in the country without an environmental justice policy, but a bill before legislators could change that. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy took high-level testimony about the need for the bill, S.148, last week and began the process of examining language this week. An early hurdle: crafting an impactful policy quickly. As currently drafted, 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 shouldnt 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, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, told the committee last week. We need to start to look at, where is distress? Where are those communities, and how do we get the resources to them? Environmental harm such as impacts from extreme weather events and pollution disproportionately affects low-income communities and those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. During Tropical Storm Irene, residents of mobile home parks represented 8% of Vermonts population, but made up 40% of the flooding victims, said Ram Hinsdale, who introduced the bill at the end of last session. Water contaminants, like lead and the toxic chemical group PFAS, are disproportionately found in Vermont communities with higher populations of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and individuals with low income, the bills findings section, which cites census data, notes. Last week, Bindu Panikkar, an assistant professor at the Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, testified before the committee to offer results from a study in which she and others interviewed many people affected by environmental harm in communities across the state. Environmental protection is not just about protecting wilderness and keeping it beautiful for Vermonters, she said. This is about making our urban and suburban neighborhoods safe, clean places to live, work and raise a family. S.148 proposes establishing an advisory council on environmental justice within the states 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. By July 1, 2024, all of the states 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 states eligible environmental, renewable energy, climate mitigation, transportation and climate resilience funds, the state would need to spend at least 55% in environmental justice communities, the bill says. Many witnesses who have testified before the committee emphasized the need to pass a bill this session. Many also warned that legislators should seek and deeply consider input from Vermonters most impacted by the issues at hand. See Also International Environmental Authority Recommends a Full Investigation into Mexico’s Vaquita Failures Participants of the conversation so far are conscious of the lessons learned from the Vermont Climate Councils process to create the states first Climate Action Plan. While the council included voices from diverse groups, it did not reach a wide array of Vermonters through its public process. Many of these requests and demands were not realized within the work of the Vermont Climate Council, which is the state’s most recent effort on a large scale to try to address these issues, Kiah Morris, movement politics director for Rights and Democracy, told the Senate NaturalResources Committee. On Thursday, Maggie Gendron, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, told legislators that agency staff are at a bandwidth of their workload, and encouraged the committee to think about the timeframe for the work. I know that a lot of our agency colleagues care passionately about this, and everybody wants to do this well, she said. Peter Walke, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said 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 said, 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, told the committee. The organization recently helped revise language in the bill. This is a critical time to act to build that infrastructure, she said. 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