Natural Resources Agency Urges Lawmakers to Boost Funds for Environmental Justice Bill

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Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, speaks Wednesday in support of an environmental bill she introduced. Photo by Emma Cotton

MONTPELIER — State lawmakers and environmental leaders are rallying around an environmental justice bill, but members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration have expressed concern about the lack of money allocated to its Implementation.

At the start of this legislative session, the bill included $3 millionpart of which would have funded more than a dozen full-time positions at the Natural Resources Agency, the Natural Resources Council – which oversees Law 250, the landmark Land Use and Development Act of the State – and to the Commerce and Community Development Agency.

Then, late last month, the Senate passed a version of the bill that would reduce the amount to $700,000.

“The administration is committed to important environmental justice work,” Julie Moore, secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, told VTDigger. “But we also need to be realistic about what we can accomplish, and I fear there is a mismatch between the significant multi-year efforts envisioned in the bill and the resources provided.”

Moore said the Natural Resources Agency needs time and resources to build trust with people in areas that, by the “even definition of underserved communities, are places where we don’t have relationships. “.

“I appreciate that the desire for really tough deadlines came out of frustration with how long it took us to get to this point and a desire to see this work done,” Moore said. “And yet, there are certain types of work that simply cannot be rushed or accelerated by resources alone.”

Another version of S.148, which emerged from the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee on Wednesday morning, appears to address some of Moore’s concerns. Although it maintains the same amount of funding – $700,000 – it extends the deadlines, changes an existing position within the agency from half-time to full-time and includes two positions that would be dedicated to implementation. environmental justice work.

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, told VTDigger Wednesday that the House Appropriations Committee, where the bill would head next, would decide whether the two positions created by the bill would be new or if they would require the agency to pick staff from other programs. She hopes the committee will nominate new permanent positions, she said.

Although Moore said she was unable to review the latest version, a final version of the bill is expected to provide new multi-year resources for the job, rather than reallocating existing positions within the agency, so that the administration supports it. .

Otherwise, the structure of the bill would “not provide the resources the agency needs to fulfill its existing obligations and the new obligations created by the environmental justice bill,” she said.

No exception

If the bill passes, Vermont would be one of the last states in the country to establish an environmental justice policy. Researchers, advocates and lawmakers say it’s absolutely necessary.

Across the country, people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities, those who are not fluent in English, and others are disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens and have limited access to environmental benefits. Studies have shown that Vermont is no exception.

For example, in 2020, the Center for American Progress found that 76% of Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous, or of color “live in ‘no-nature’ census tracts with a higher proportion of natural areas lost to people. human activities than the Vermont median. according to the findings section of the bill. “In contrast, 27% of white individuals live in these areas.”

While mobile homes make up about 7% of Vermont’s housing stock, they accounted for 40% of sites affected during Tropical Storm Irene, according to the bill.

As passed by the Senate, S.148 states that “no segment of the population of the State should, because of its racial, cultural, or economic composition, bear a disproportionate share of environmental burdens or be denied an equitable share of environmental benefits”.

“It is further the policy of the State of Vermont to provide opportunity for the meaningful participation of all individuals, with particular attention to environmental justice populations, in the development, implementation or ‘enforcement of any law, regulation or policy,’ the bill states.

To accomplish this burden, the bill would establish a new mapping tool that would use census data to identify communities where environmental burdens, such as pollution and the impacts of climate change, are having an outsized impact on Vermonters — by especially those with low incomes and those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

Lawmakers and members of environmental organizations gathered at the Statehouse on Tuesday morning to voice their support for the bill and urge its passage, calling it an important “first step.”

“When we started, we had an ambitious goal of what we could fund and what would be needed,” Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, who introduced the bill, told reporters. “Everyone had ambitious goals for what needs to be funded this year.”

The bill would also establish an Environmental Justice Advisory Council and an Interagency Committee on Environmental Justice, which would direct state agencies to invest in and listen to affected communities.

Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, speaks Wednesday. Photo by Emma Cotton

Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, told reporters that she “hopes she will have enough funding to move this bill forward, and to implement place the committees and the advisory board and start this hard work.”

Even without the suite of dedicated staff that the additional funding would have established, some lawmakers and advocates said it lays an important foundation for the state to begin environmental justice work. Others still hope to see the amount allocated to the bill increase.

“We urge the House to pass a strong version of S.148,” said Sebbi Wu, climate and equity advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “This includes additional funding to put this council in place to be successful.”

Xusana Davis, executive director of racial equity for the state, testified before the House Natural Resources Committee earlier this month on the merits of the proposed policy from a racial equity perspective.

Although Davis said her office supports the bill, she “strongly, strongly” urged the committee to ask “how much work are we asking for and how are we resourcing it?”

“We don’t just want to say on paper, ‘We want to do everything we can to support historically marginalized or underserved communities,'” she said. “These communities are not underserved by an inherent measure of their own. They are underserved because someone is not serving us.

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