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From Local to National Levels, Vermont Law School Community Members Shape Environmental Justice Legislation

Protestors march with a colorful painted banner that reads "Rise for Environmental Justice for All"
     Photo by Fernando Lopez/Survival Media Agency via Flickr

Students and faculty in Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic and Climate Justice Practicum are helping to strengthen environmental justice legislation across the country: from the City of Philadelphia to the State of Vermont to federal legislative action. The policies they’re working on aim to ensure that all communities—regardless of race, color, national origin, disability, or income—have a say in decisions that affect their environments, livelihoods, and future. Ahead, learn more about this work from the students and faculty involved.

An Environmental Justice Ordinance in Philadelphia

Students in the Climate Justice Practicum—a collaboration with the Yale School of Public Health—have been working on a cumulative impacts approach to address environmental justice in Philadelphia. “Through this ordinance, the City of Philadelphia could reduce the types of pollution linked to health problems,” said student Nic Pritchett LLM'20 MFALP'22, who has been working on research underlying the bill. “Particularly, to avoid taking actions or decisions that add to the total amount of pollution affecting communities deemed disproportionately impacted by existing pollution, and to address health disparities caused by environmental factors.”

The ordinance would improve decision-making related to public health and the environment when issuing certain types of new plan approvals, permits, and variances. It would require the development of a health disparities index and require new projects to be assessed for imposing cumulative impacts on already overburdened communities. Implementation would involve mechanisms to ensure that local communities have a voice in decision-making and be guided by Philadelphia’s newly established Environmental Justice Advisory Committee.

Pritchett and fellow classmates partnered with advocates at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia to develop an initial draft of the ordinance and a new cohort of interdisciplinary students have been working on outreach materials and legal research throughout the spring. The ordinance has now been introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym as the Community Health Act, modeled after successful legislative efforts in New Jersey and Massachusetts.

"Through this ordinance, the City of Philadelphia could reduce the types of pollution linked to health problems."
–Nic Pritchett

An Environmental Justice Policy for Vermont

For over a year now, students in VLS’s Environmental Justice Clinic have been supporting a coalition of organizations and advocates across the state to develop S.148: Vermont’s first environmental justice policy. Building on work he conducted with student clinician Mariah Harrod last spring, student Tyler Doan JD'22 has been developing the bill’s citations and findings, along with student clinician Jordan Barker and LLM Fellow Frederick Ole Ikayo.

“The bill has multiple goals, to set an environmental justice policy so that ‘no segment of the population of the state should, because of its racial, cultural, or economic makeup, bear a disproportionate share of environmental benefits or burdens,’” Doan said, quoting the language of the bill. “and the bill aims to define environmental justice populations based on race, low income, and limited English proficiency.”

The bill also would also set a goal of committing 55 percent of environmental, renewable energy, climate mitigation, transportation, and climate resilience resources to designated environmental justice populations; establish an environmental justice advisory council; commit the state to create an environmental justice mapping tool; and establish a date for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

State Senator Kesha Ram introduced the bill last year as lead sponsor. In March, S.148 passed out of the Vermont Senate on an encouraging bipartisan 28-1 vote. Now, it’s moving through the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. VLS Visiting Professor and Environmental Justice Clinic Director Amy Laura Cahn testified before the House Committee at an April 13th hearing.

“This bill is important as environmental justice issues are everywhere, even in the beautiful state of Vermont,” said Doan. “For example, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized Vermont’s deficiencies in addressing Environmental Justice concerns related to legacy mining and mobile home park habitability, providing grants for these projects in 1998 and 2005. These issues need, and deserve, to be addressed throughout the nation."

"This bill is important as environmental justice issues are everywhere, even in the beautiful state of Vermont."
–Tyler Doan

The Federal Environmental Justice for All Act

Given her extensive experience working on environmental justice legislation, Professor Cahn was also invited to testify before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in a recent hearing on the proposed Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 2021). This bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on disparate impact. It would also require considering cumulative impacts in permitting decisions under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, community participation in decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and more. Professor Cahn joined Dr. Nicky Sheats, Director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research, and Laura Cortez, Co-Executive Director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, as witnesses for the majority.

“For far too long, this nation has denied People of Color, Indigenous Communities and Tribal Nations, and low-income communities—environmental justice communities—the right to a healthy environment,” Professor Cahn said in her testimony. “Our nation has saddled environmental justice communities with the burden of proving harm, neglect, and discrimination — with little redress in the face of a mountain of evidence. H.R. 2021 would fill those gaps and transform how we address environmental racism and prepare for a just transition in the face of the climate crisis.”

Weaving in statistics from studies on the disparate impacts of pollution and stories of communities disproportionately affected, Professor Cahn went on to describe the deadly impacts of environmental racism and the struggles environmental justice communities face in bearing the burden of proof. She laid out how H.R. 2021 could strengthen NEPA and fill gaps in protections under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and how it could help restore the rights of individuals and communities to mount legal challenges.

“Stronger legal tools will create greater accountability and more equitable outcomes by addressing policy, planning, permitting, and enforcement decisions that perpetuate harm to environmental justice communities,” Professor Cahn said. “H.R. 2021 directs critical resources to address environmental racism and facilitate a just transition.”

All of the EJ Clinic and Practicum efforts to support the development of environmental justice legislation dovetail with a longstanding Clinic project to compile and create a database of environmental justice laws and policies across the 50 states and territories. Stay tuned for the launch of this web-based tool.

"For far too long, this nation has denied People of Color, Indigenous Communities and Tribal Nations, and low-income communities—environmental justice communities—the right to a healthy environment."
– Professor Amy Laura Cahn