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Gov. Scott signs environmental justice policy and 2 other major environmental bills into law

The Vermont Statehouse.
Ric Cengeri
/
VPR File
Gov. Phil Scott signed Vermont's first ever environmental justice policy into law this week.

Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday signed a bill that creates Vermont’s first ever environmental justice policy.

Vermont is one of the last states in New England to have an environmental justice policy on the books, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing for one since 2016.

The bill makes it the official policy of the state that no community should bear a disproportionate share of environmental harms – things like pollution, urban heat or the downsides of energy infrastructure – or have access to more than their share of environmental benefits. Examples of environmental benefits include clean water, access to natural spaces and trails, but also the ability to participate in climate solutions.

The law creates two advisory groups at the state: one of staff from different state agencies to coordinate environmental justice work, and one of Vermonters from environmental justice communities to review and give feedback on policy decisions and climate solutions.

More from VPR: Lawmakers, governor weigh first ever environmental justice policy for Vermont

It also funds a full-time civil rights compliance officer at the Agency of Natural Resources.

The law also calls for regular audits of state environmental spending, to create a record of where investments are going and sets a goal to make sure environmental justice communities are getting their share.

The Agency of Natural Resources will be tasked with mapping environmental harm in Vermont, similar to the way the state now maps resources like wetlands and prime agricultural soils.

More than nine environmental groups across the state voiced their support for the law Tuesday evening.

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, said the policy marks an important step forward for Vermont.

“It is indisputable that the harmful effects of climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities, including BIPOC people,” Schultz said. “The principles of an environmental justice law acknowledge and address the injustices of civil rights and seek to rectify the exclusion of the most vulnerable and affected members of society.”

Find more VPR legislative coverage here.

The bill was written with input from environmental justice communities across the state.

Sebbi Wu with Vermont Public Interest Research Group said that was key and credited community leaders with pushing the policy forward.

“This law is a key step towards leaving no community behind in our efforts to address the climate crisis and other pressing environmental challenges."
Sebbi Wu, Vermont Public Interest Research Group

“This law is a key step towards leaving no community behind in our efforts to address the climate crisis and other pressing environmental challenges,” Wu said.

Sandrine Kibuey helped lead the outreach to mobile home residents that informed the policies in the law. She leads Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's housing advocacy program.

"The fact that it was signed into law is a great victory for advocacy and for system change," Kibuey said.

She also leads the Vermont New Americans Advisory Council, and is hopeful this new law will bring more voices into the democratic process in Vermont.

"As a New American myself and as a Vermonter, I do believe that this will have a huge impact and a positive impact on the lives of Vermonters as a whole," Kibuey said.

She says the real test will be whether the work the law requires gets adequate and sustained funding.

Letting forests grow old will soon be allowed under the Current Use Program

Late last week, Gov. Scott also signed a bill that makes it easier for landowners who want to let their forests grow old to get tax incentives for doing so.

For decades, Vermont’s Current Use, or Use Value Appraisal program, has given a lower tax rate to Vermonters who keep their land out of development.

The law is credited with keeping thousands of acres of forest intact. But in order to be "in Current Use," land has to be farmed or harvested for timber.

More from VPR: Poll finds most Vermonters expect major impacts from climate change in the next 30 years

That will change in July. The bill signed by Scott will let some of those landowners enroll under a new category and manage their land for "old forest characteristics."

Trees take climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow, so letting forests grow old can help combat climate change. It's also good for wildlife and for water quality.

Right now old forests account for just 1% of Vermont's forestland. Vermont Conservation Design, the state’s data-driven conservation planning tool, says we should aim for having 9% of our forests being more than 100 years old.

Adapting Vermont's Current Use Program to include managing forests for old growth characteristics was a key recommendation in Vermont's Climate Action Plan — both for trapping climate-warming carbon from the air and for building more resilient forests.

Lauren Oates is with the Nature Conservancy in Vermont and sits on Vermont's Climate Council. She called this a vital first step.

"That said, even with this expansion, there's no way that we can meet the old growth forest targets that we have as a state," Oates said. "We definitely need to be increasing the amount of permanently protected land dedicated to old forest management."

A closer look at neonicotinoid pesticides on seeds

Scott recently also signed a bill that tasks Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets with taking a closer look at how a popular pesticide is used in Vermont.

It's common for corn, soybeans and other food crop seeds to be sold with a coating of neonicotinoid pesticides.

The chemicals are used to ward of insect pests. But direct exposure to them has been shown to harm both honeybees and wild pollinators. Bee populations are declining dramatically, and Vermont beekeekers have reported alarming rates of hive die-off in recent years.

More from VPR: How Vermont is — and isn’t — on track to reduce its share of climate-warming emissions

Lawmakers at first weighed a temporary ban on the pesticides this session, but soon softened their approach after hearing testimony from the dairy sector.

Instead, the new law tasks the agency of agriculture with drafting best management practices for neonicotinoids. It also calls for a study of whether Vermont should regulate all seeds coated with pesticides.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.