Agency of Natural Resources urges lawmakers to bolster funds for environmental justice bill

Agency of Natural Resources urges lawmakers to bolster funds for environmental justice bill
Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, speaks on 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 concerns that not enough money is allocated for its implementation. 

Earlier this legislative session, the bill included $3 million, part of which would have funded more than a dozen full-time positions at the Agency of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Board — which oversees Act 250, the state’s landmark land use and development law — and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. 

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 the important work of environmental justice,” Julie Moore, secretary of the state’s Agency of Natural Resources, told VTDigger. “But we also have to be realistic about what we can accomplish, and I am concerned that there’s a mismatch between the significant multi-year efforts as envisioned in the bill and the resources that are provided.”

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

“I appreciate that the desire for really rigorous timelines is one born out of frustration for how long it’s taken us to get to this point and desire to see this work done,” Moore said. “And yet, there’s certain kinds of work that simply can’t be rushed or accelerated by resources alone.”

Another version of S.148, which passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Wednesday morning, appears to address some of Moore’s concerns. While it maintains the same amount of funding — $700,000 — it expands timelines, bumps one existing position in the agency from half-time to full-time, and includes two positions that would be dedicated to implementing the environmental justice work. 

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, told VTDigger on Wednesday the House Committee on Appropriations, where the bill is headed next, will decide whether the two positions created by the bill would be new, or whether they’d require the agency to pluck staff members from other programs. She hopes the committee designates new, permanent positions, she said. 

While Moore said she hadn’t been able to review the latest iteration, a final version of the bill would need to provide new, multi-year resources for the work, rather than reassigning existing positions within the agency, for the administration to support 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 sorely needed. 

Across the country, people of color, people with low incomes, those with disabilities, those who don’t speak English fluently and others are disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens and have restricted 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 people of color “live in ‘nature deprived’ census tracts with a higher proportion of natural areas lost to 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 represent around 7% of Vermont’s housing stock, they made up 40% of the affected sites 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 makeup, 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 the 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 that charge, the bill would establish a new mapping tool that would use Census data to identify communities where environmental burdens, such as pollution and impacts of climate change, have an outsized impact on Vermonters — particularly those with low incomes and those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. 

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

“When we set out, we had an ambitious goal for what we could fund and what would be necessary,” 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 stand up an Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and an Interagency Environmental Justice Committee, which would guide state agencies toward investing more in — and hearing more from — impacted communities.

Agency of Natural Resources urges lawmakers to bolster funds for environmental justice bill
Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, speaks on Wednesday. Photo by Emma Cotton

Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, told reporters she’s “hopeful that it will have adequate funding to get this bill going, and to stand up the committees and the Advisory Council and begin this hard work.”

Even without the suite of dedicated staff the additional funding would have established, some lawmakers and advocates said it lays important groundwork for the state to begin environmental justice work. Others are still hoping to see the allocated amount for 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. “That includes additional funding to set this council up for success.”

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

While Davis said her office supports the bill, she “strongly, strongly” urged the committee to consider, “what is the amount of work that we’re asking for, and how are we resourcing it?” 

“We don’t just want to say on paper, ‘We want to make every effort to support historically marginalized or underserved communities,’” she said. “Those communities aren’t underserved by any inherent measure of their own. They’re underserved because someone is not serving us.”

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