Editor's note: This commentary is by Sandra Levine, who is a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier.
In the face of Covid-19, Vermonters stepped up to provide much-needed relief to help each other stay safe and healthy. The efforts of volunteers, health care, and other essential workers helps meet daily needs. The uneven toll extracted by the brutal virus has unmasked how some communities are harder hit than others.
Early research shows that Covid-19 has an outsized impact in areas already suffering from contamination and other hazards. Across the country, places with higher pollution impacts are also the areas suffering from higher rates of severe cases and more deaths from Covid-19. Underlying health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and obesity put people at greater risk and are more prevalent in these hardest hit areas.
These same links highlight how Vermont can provide even more relief from Covid-19 and further ease the burdens faced by many. Vermont has its share of industrial pollution. Hazardous waste sites still dot the landscape. Pollution from landfills and sewage mars our groundwater and food supply when this waste is spread as sludge on farm fields. Harmful climate emissions have increased over the past years despite goals to reduce them. And soot from cars, trucks, burning wood, oil and gas further spoils the air we breathe.
It is often low-income and marginalized populations that live in these air and water pollution hot spots. These are flood prone areas or places near congested roads, highways and industry. This pollution does not stop at the doorway — substandard housing can lead to staggeringly high rates of indoor air contamination that makes people sick. Recent tests show an alarmingly high number of schools have elevated levels of lead in the drinking water provided for children, teachers, and workers. Even low levels of lead exposure can result in lifelong consequences that harm learning and health.
As Vermont continues relief efforts and builds toward recovery, many tools are already in place that can make communities stronger and more resilient to face future challenges. By weatherizing more homes and businesses, Vermonters will use less oil and gas, save money, cut climate emissions, and reduce harmful indoor air pollution by improving ventilation. Vermont set a goal to weatherize 80,000 homes by the end of the year but has completed less than half that number. Increasing weatherization puts people back to work, while improving the safety of homes that people are spending even more time in these days.
Curbing the dirt, grime, and toxins in our water and air provides extra relief for people suffering health impacts from pollution. Fighting the federal rollbacks of important environmental protections, from car emissions rules to toxics and clean water standards is a good first step. Reducing garbage that goes to landfills from single use plastics or items that are toxic or could be recycled or composted avoids wasting valuable resources and cuts back the risk of contamination. Keeping polluted runoff from farms, parking lots and industry out of waterways and wells benefits everyone’s health.
Stronger measures are also needed. A Global Warming Solutions Act turns goals to tackle climate emissions into requirements. This will ensure Vermont meets its climate challenges in ways that protect vulnerable communities and avoid future catastrophe. Vermont can also join with neighboring states in the Transportation Climate Initiative to not only reduce auto pollution, but also provide critical resources and benefits to low-income and rural areas. Protecting local waterways from flooding shields exposed neighborhoods that face greater risks from spring floods or extremes like Tropical Storm Irene.
Vermont’s emergency relief and recovery plans can build a Vermont that keeps more people healthy, safe, and thriving. Cutting pollution, particularly for communities most harmed by the threats from COVID-19, allows Vermont to rebuild in a way that grows good paying jobs and sustains Vermont as healthy place to live and work for everyone. Creating more resilient communities ensures a thriving Vermont and a brighter future.