A Vermont Senate committee is finalizing a proposal supporters hope will give underrepresented communities a more active role in shaping the state’s environmental policies.
The bill would define an “environmental justice population,” set funding targets for state agencies to spend on these communities, and form an advisory council to elevate the voices of low-income residents, people of color and non-English speakers. It’s a new version of a bill introduced in the state Senate last year.
“We really wanted to answer the question: What does environmental justice look like in Vermont?” said Jennifer Byrne, a fellow at Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic who helped write the bill.
The bill references a Center for American Progress study that found 76% of Black, Indigenous and people of color in Vermont live in “nature deprived” census tracts. Research from the University of Vermont has found that mobile homes are more likely than permanent structures to be located in a flood hazard area, and mobile homes in Vermont were disproportionately damaged during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
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Byrne and others at the REJOICE Project — Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise — have been working since 2017 to speak with members of these and other underrepresented communities in Vermont to determine the biggest environmental challenges they face. In addition to flooding, key areas of concern they’ve found that are also noted in the bill include energy affordability, access to fresh food and access to information in languages other than English.
Climate change has made the bill even more important to pass right now, Byrne said. Without a proper avenue for the state to hear from vulnerable communities, she said, new funding for things like weatherization and electric vehicles may mostly benefit places where people have the experience and resources to help apply for assistance.
“These are wildly disparate experiences we’re having here and they’re only going to grow wider,” said Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who introduced the bill last year. She’s been working to raise environmental justice awareness in Vermont for more than a decade.
Discussion has increased in that time, she said. Data collection is easier, thanks in part to the introduction of EJScreen, a federal mapping tool that can be used to show environmental hazards geographically. Additionally, Ram Hinsdale said, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 raised awareness that people of color in Vermont are more likely to be at a disadvantage for receiving many services.
Vermont has historically taken pride in its environmental progress, and that’s been a barrier to recognizing challenges, Ram Hinsdale said. “So we are finally putting the pieces together so it’s much clearer that despite being a green state, we still have disparities.”
Supporters of the new bill say it will hold agencies accountable for delivering resources fairly to communities. “Lack of a clear environmental justice policy has resulted in a piecemeal approach to understanding and addressing environmental justice in Vermont” and has prevented equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, the bill says.
The bill, which is expected to pass out of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy as early as Thursday, currently defines environmental justice as meaning that “all individuals are afforded equitable access to and distribution of environmental benefits; equitable distribution of environmental burdens; fair and equitable treatment and meaningful participation in decision-making processes; and the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
An environmental justice population is defined as any census block group in which the annual median income is no more than 80% of the state median household income; people of color and Indigenous people make up at least 6% of the population; or at least 1% of households have limited English proficiency.
The bill would require many state agencies, including the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Transportation, as well as the Public Utility Commission and the Department of Public Service, to consider cumulative environmental burdens when making decisions about the environment, energy, climate and other areas, and the associated funding. They’re required to be in compliance with Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs receiving federal funds.
The agencies also must create community engagement plans to effectively include environmental justice populations in the process of evaluating new and existing programs. The Agency of Natural Resources will have to lead development of a mapping tool to help measure environmental burdens geographically. The agencies must set a goal of investing their funds so that environmental justice populations receive 55% of the environmental benefits. That amount is based on the definition of environmental justice population, which encompasses about 52% of Vermont’s population. (This overlaps with the Biden administration’s definition of disadvantaged community in its Justice40 initiative.)
Two new committees would be created under the bill to oversee environmental policy development. The Interagency Environmental Justice Committee would comprise agency leaders to develop guidance on how agencies should create community engagement plans and determine funding distribution.
The Environmental Justice Advisory Council would comprise individuals from outside the state government and act as a consulting body for agencies and lawmakers developing environmental policies. More than half of the 17-member council would have to reside in environmental justice communities. They’d include representatives of social justice organizations, people involved in mobile home park advocacy, members of Native American Indian tribes and representatives from immigrant communities.
Through their work, the two committees will also evaluate and help the state government update the definition of an environmental justice population. Byrne said she expects it will be adjusted as the council and state agencies hear from community members.
By many accounts, the creation of the bill has been relatively smooth, with state agency officials, lawmakers and advocates working together. Byrne attributed this to the multi-year relationship between the Agency of Natural Resources and the REJOICE team.
One of the key questions as the bill nears completion in the Senate committee is how much power the advisory council will have in shaping policy.
Byrne and other advocates would like a procedure to be included in the bill that allows the advisory council to vote on rules being proposed pursuant to this policy. It wouldn’t necessarily stop policies from being approved, she said. Rather, it would mean rulemaking committees are informed whether the council has approved a proposed rule and allow the committees to consult with the advisory council.
“There’s no additional rights here that we’re asking for,” she added. This would simply solidify public engagement in the rulemaking process, she said. Elena Mihaly, vice president of Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont chapter, who helped write the bill, said advocates would try to get the stipulation in when it goes to the House if it doesn’t make it through in the Senate.
While the process of drafting the bill has been smooth, that doesn’t mean it’s sure to pass: Once it gets through the current Senate committee, Mihaly said it will go to the Appropriations Committee before reaching the full Senate. From there, the bill would go through a similar process in the House.
“I think it’s really fundamental that the state of Vermont has an environmental justice policy on the books,” Mihaly said. While there are disagreements on some of the details, she said, “fundamentally … I haven’t met anyone in the state that doesn’t believe that this is needed.”
Codifying environmental justice into law “is a really important first step” to get the state to address the challenges laid out in the bill, said Sebbi Wu, climate and equity advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He’s also a member of the Vermont Renews BIPOC Advisory Council and has been involved in discussions on the bill, including for the definitions of environmental justice and environmental justice population.
Giving vulnerable communities the power to influence policy is vital, Wu said, because no matter how good policymakers are at their jobs, “people with lived experience know what they need.”
But he, like others, emphasized that the bill is only a start. It will help demonstrate the distribution of environmental justice-focused work in Vermont, and it will help involve communities in this work. But equity still needs to be considered in the development of other policies, he noted, whether it’s transportation, weatherization at scale or the clean heat standard currently in discussion in the legislature.
This bill, while it covers many agencies and potential policies, won’t automatically ensure they consider equity, he said. “We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”