As an environmental advocate, this time of year I’m usually sitting in cramped committee rooms in the Vermont State House, looking wistfully out the window as spring blossoms. Though it’s now possible to access the virtual Legislature while sitting outside, I miss connecting with lawmakers, advocates and Vermonters who come to speak up about the issues that matter to them.
It’s encouraging that one thing feels “normal” — despite the challenges of adapting to operating remotely, legislators have continued working on a range of initiatives to support healthy communities. These include bills to reduce Vermonters’ exposure to toxic chemicals, improve recycling, increase access to voting and increase funding for climate solutions and clean water.
This year, legislators have been working on a bill to restrict the use of cancer-causing PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam, carpets and rugs and ski wax, and PFAS and hormone-disrupting phthalates and bisphenols in food packaging. The bill is supported by firefighters, business groups, educators, public health and children’s advocates, and environmental groups and takes important steps to prevent more PFAS-containing products from being brought into the state. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and is poised for action in the House.
Also, there have been important developments regarding recycling. The Vermont House just passed a bill to update the popular and successful bottle redemption program. Our “bottle bill” currently includes a deposit on soda, beer and liquor, and the bill would expand coverage to beverage containers like plastic water bottles, sports drinks and hard cider. Bottle redemption programs are highly successful at recycling materials, which reduces water, air and climate pollution, and creates green jobs. The bill will be taken up by the Senate next.
Lawmakers are also working on legislation to foster a healthy democracy by implementing permanent, universal vote-by-mail for all General Elections in Vermont. This bill builds on the record-breaking turnout we saw in the 2020 November election. The more options Vermonters have to vote, the more accessible our elections will be. Access must include people experiencing homelessness, people who are housebound, youth, those working multiple jobs, BIPOC Vermonters and others who often face considerable barriers in getting to the polls.
Additionally, you may be aware Vermont has received more than $1 billion of federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Lawmakers are now making decisions on how to spend this money. Current proposals being considered include significant commitments to climate action, such as implementing the Climate Action Plan under development by the Climate Council created by Legislature last year.
For example, we’ve long known weatherizing Vermonters’ homes is a critical climate solution, as heating our buildings is a big driver of Vermont’s climate pollution. Tightening up our homes creates jobs, saves people money on their monthly heating bills, and creates healthier and more comfortable homes. The biggest barrier to widespread weatherization has been inadequate funding in programs to help people make these investments. Vermont’s ARPA funding gives us the chance to jump-start investments in these programs, as we develop long-term and sustainable funding solutions.
The ARPA stimulus funds also give us an opportunity to make notable progress on modernizing our water infrastructure. While the state government has worked hard to put in place funding for programs to clean up polluted waters, we also need to upgrade drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in communities around the state. ARPA funds could be used to address combined sewer overflow issues, upgrade wastewater systems, ensure drinking water is free of toxic PFAS contaminants, and more.
Some policies haven’t seen much action yet, but I hope will gain momentum heading into next year. In particular, policies being led and shaped by BIPOC Vermonters to address environmental justice are critically important. Legislation is needed to ensure no populations in our state bear a disproportionate share of the risks and harms of pollution, nor should any person be denied equal access to benefits due to their racial, cultural or economic makeup. Policies like the BIPOC Land Access and Opportunity Act have been introduced to promote racial and social equity in land access and property ownership using a variety of tools, including grant programs, financial education and investments, as well as updating the membership and focus of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
Altogether, given the massive challenges and opportunities we are grappling with right now, I’m heartened to see lawmakers’ ongoing commitment to policies that support healthy communities and an accessible democracy. Likewise, I’m hopeful that once-in-a-lifetime investments made possible by the federal stimulus funds can be strategically invested in programs that improve our health and environment. As spring blooms, I’m grateful for these reasons for optimism.
Lauren Hierl is Vermont Conservation Voters’ executive director.