Guest Post: Conservation Law Foundation

Phish Fans Help Support Adoption of Vermont’s First Environmental Justice Law

By Elena Mihaly
Vice President, CLF Vermont

From flooded streets to polluted air, the signs of our planet suffering are all around us. And the threats that wound our world hurt us, too. Even worse, certain communities shoulder an unfair burden from our greatest environmental crises.

At Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), we believe that every Vermonter deserves access to a healthy environment. For too long, low-income Vermonters, residents of color, and those with limited English proficiency have had less access to environmental benefits. Instead, they are more likely to be overburdened by pollution compared to predominantly white communities. These environmental justice populations have a right to access natural resources, participate in developing environmental laws, and obtain benefits from climate and infrastructure investments.

That’s why Vermont’s adoption of its first ever Environmental Justice law is so critical – and we at CLF couldn’t have gotten this far without your support through the Waterwheel Foundation.

Why Does Vermont Need Environmental Justice?

People don’t just have a right to access natural spaces, they have a right to a clean and healthy neighborhood, too. However, decades of disregard and oppression have created a system where some people suffer more from environmental harms – particularly people of color, low-income communities, and those with limited English-speaking proficiency.

Such inequities occur even in rural states like Vermont. Dr. Bindu Panikkar, an energy and environmental justice professor at University of Vermont, has found that these groups were significantly more at risk from environmental harms than the rest of the state population. Vermonters of color were twice as likely as white Vermonters to lack access to public transportation and to report autoimmune disorders. They are also three times more likely to have trouble paying for electricity and to go hungry in a month. Vermonters living below the
federal poverty limit are twice as likely to report asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

Climate change and its impacts are only making these inequities worse.

That’s why the recent adoption of Vermont’s Environmental Justice law is so important. Having just completed its Climate Action Plan, Vermont is clearly ready to act with the urgency we need to drastically cut climate-damaging emissions and protect our world.

But the Climate Action Plan isn’t only about lowering polluting emissions. It’s also about ensuring a just transition away from dirty fossil fuels. Vermont’s Environmental Justice law is a key step in Vermont’s path towards achieving environmental, social, and climate justice.

What Does Vermont’s Environmental Justice Law Do?

Vermont’s Environmental Justice law sets a statewide policy that no one group in the state should bear a disproportionate amount of environmental harm. Nor should any group receive more than their fair share of environmental benefits. The law then defines “Environmental Justice Focus Populations,” or communities that require particular focus due to past and present environmental injustices, by demographic information including race, income level, and English proficiency.

Next, the law focuses on how to bring these communities into decision-making processes around environmental issues that will affect them – something to which frontline communities have been typically denied access. The law creates an Advisory Council comprised of members from environmental justice communities to participate in policy and legal conversations. It also establishes a deadline for all government agencies to create community engagement plans. These plans will include specific outreach and public participation strategies for reviewing new or reoccurring projects that will impact a community.

Finally, the new law begins to bridge the gap between who gets to benefit from environmental solutions and who gets left behind. It commits the State to spending a proportion of its financial investments in environmental solutions, such as better public transportation and access to clean energy, in environmental justice communities.

It’s Been a Long Journey – and Our Work Isn’t Over Yet

This Environmental Justice law has been in the works for five years – it’s taken nearly half a decade to get to where we are now. Many hands worked hard to shepherd this law into its current state, including the REJOICE collective, community-focused groups across Vermont, the BIPOC Advisory Council of the Vermont Renews Coalition, and legislative leaders.

CLF has backed these community members in crafting and advocating for passage of the law. We rely on the community knowledge and expertise that these coalitions bring to the conversation. We’re ready to partner with these groups to ensure that implementation of the law puts us on the path to a just, livable future.

None of this work would have been possible without your support. As Phish fans, you understand how important protecting our environment is – for the spaces and people we love. Because of your words, your actions, and your help, CLF has the resources we need to work with community members on this and other groundbreaking legislation in Vermont and across New England.