Environmental justice sought for Vermont
MIDDLEBURY — Kesha Ram Hinsdale was a senior at the University of Vermont in 2007 when she pitched a first-ever environmental justice policy for the state.
While she found a dedicated group of sponsors for the legislation, H.463, a majority of lawmakers back then weren’t convinced of a pressing need for Vermont to pass such a measure.
Almost 15 years later, Ram Hinsdale is again championing an environmental justice bill — this time as a state senator representing Chittenden County.
“We’re building a movement,” the Shelburne Democrat told members of the Middlebury College community, who on Oct. 14 hosted her for a talk on her efforts to pass S.148. The bill, among other things, would establish an environmental justice policy for the state and require agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their work.
“I understand a lot of the barriers in Vermont to passing this legislation have been because it’s a language that largely developed from an urban context,” Ram Hinsdale said. “People have come to think of this as an ‘urban’ issue.”
But it’s not, Ram Hinsdale stressed. The BLM movement, an increase in migrant farm labor and the discovery of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) groundwater contamination in Bennington several years ago have helped increase awareness of environmental and racial justice issues in rural Vermont, she noted.
Just what is environmental justice?
According to Ram Hinsdale, it means:
• Equal access to clean air, clean water, outdoor recreation, healthy homes, health care and fresh food.
• Enhancing public participation and access to information, as well as removing language barriers.
• Ensuring no discrimination based on race, national origin, disability or income; and equal distribution of environmental burdens and benefits.
Mobile home parks have been emblematic of Vermont’s environmental justice movement, she said. Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed or damaged many mobile homes in the Green Mountain State, leaving many homeless and feeling disenfranchised. Around 40% of Vermonters who suffered property loss during Irene were mobile home park residents, according to Ram Hinsdale.
“Living in flood zones, not having access to other housing options has been devastating, as well as (related) issues such as sewage backup and lack of access to clean drinking water,” she said.
State officials are now talking about moving mobile home parks to higher ground as a way of safeguarding them from storms.
“That’s going to have a lot of environmental justice implications, and will center the voices of the most impacted people who are being relocated — if it’s done right,” she said. “But there are a lot of ways it could go wrong.”
And that’s why she wants to get it right with S.148. The bill’s features include establishing an Advisory Council on Environmental Justice within the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to advise the state on environmental justice issues, and would require the creation of an environmental justice mapping tool to identify environmentally distressed communities.
Ram Hinsdale has considerable experience working with people in distressed communities.
She was born in Los Angeles in 1986 and attended public schools in Santa Monica, Calif. Throughout her young life, she has taken an interest in the plight of historically marginalized people.
Her interest in helping folks grew in direction and intensity after hearing a speech by political commentator, author and lawyer Van Jones (who also happened to have been Middlebury commencement speaker in 2016).
“He said he was working to make Oakland crime-free, poverty-free and carbon-neutral at the same time, and you couldn’t do one without the others” she said, “and that if you didn’t find a light at the crossroads between environmental and social justice, both movements would fail.
“That hit me like nothing else has hit me before,” Ram Hinsdale added. “It set me on my path to be focused on that intersection and that light at the crossroads.”
While in California, she worked for the Coalition for Clean Air. Her main focus was on the dry cleaning industry.
“It’s so not splashy, but so important to the health of workers and the toxins that remain in the ground long after,” she said.
Ram Hinsdale during that time did a lot of networking with Korean immigrant groups, who owned two-thirds of the dry cleaning businesses in the LA area. She learned how to work in concert with the Korean population to clean up the industry, rather than “bulldozing their dreams,” so the environmental movement didn’t appear to them like an enemy that was taking something away from them.
She brought this philosophy with her to the University of Vermont, from which she graduated in 2008 with a BS in Natural Resource Planning and a BA in Political Science. She represented the city of Burlington as a Vermont House rep. from 2008-2016, before being elected to the state Senate in 2020.
Ram Hinsdale was surprised to find no organized environmental justice movement in Vermont. It seemed counterintuitive to her, given Green Mountain State’s dedication to environmental and progressive causes.
“We should feel exceptional in many ways, but in some context, that was getting in the way of understanding what rural, isolated environmental injustice looks like,” she recalled. “It’s not going to be a refinery next to an elementary school, necessarily. It’s going to be people suffering in silence with lead poisoning affecting their kids, or an asbestos mine or a calcium carbonate manufacturing facility in their community.”
While Vermont lawmakers weren’t on board with Ram Hinsdale’s first environmental justice bill in 2007, she believes the stars are beginning to align — with some coaxing from Washington. The federal Environmental Protection Agency actively urged Vermont to formulate such a policy in 2015.
“You’re behind,” the feds warned the state, according to Ram Hinsdale. “You’ve been behind for a long time and you’re going to have to show us some progress.”
As of this year, Vermont remains one in a handful of states yet to codify an environmental justice policy, she said.
“That’s the consolation I have for this taking so long — the legislation is getting better,” she said. “We’re doing it now, when other states have really … improved environmental justice policy.”
But she cautioned Vermont can’t just import and rubber stamp a “one-size-fits-all” policy.
“An environmental justice policy can’t just be airlifted from California and dropped in Vermont; it has to involve the people who will be most impacted, from start to finish,” she said.
Ram Hinsdale wants to involve all Vermont demographics in the environmental justice movement, including indigenous people and migrants.
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, is an avid supporter of S.148. She agreed with Ram Hinsdale’s belief that recent cases of racial injustice and the PFAS issue in Bennington have helped direct attention to environmental justice in Vermont.
“People are thinking about it in a much more in-depth way,” Hardy said. “I think the time is ripe to move forward with this. I’m optimistic about this.”
John Flowers is at addisonindependent.com.
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