Letter, Opinion

How to claim your right to know 

Dear Editor,

Imagine, for a few moments, Vermont’s future 50 years from now. What do our communities look like? How is our food grown? How happy are we in the places where we live, work, and play? How central are public health concerns, equity, and justice in our legislation and decision-making processes? And what are we doing to take steps today—right now, in fact—to achieve that vision as we emerge gradually from the Covid-19 pandemic? 

I ponder this often in my study of the human relationship to our environment. I think Vermonters would agree that what most of us do not envision is a state that allows environmental toxins to be released into our communities under the radar. This is what H.299 aims to correct as a bill that takes seriously our right to know when such events occur.  

H.299 contains four commonsense measures to require public notice of public health threats from environmental toxins. 

Firstly, it ensures our right to know when pesticides are applied to right-of-way areas—that is, railroads, underneath power lines, around oil and gas pipelines, and along highways and bike paths. Secondly, the bill would hold institutions accountable through public notice when they are not complying with water quality standards, or if they are exempt from those standards. Thirdly, it gives us the right to know when biosolids or septage are applied to the land in our communities. Finally, it requires regular monitoring for the presence of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in waters under the state’s jurisdiction, as well as more complete public notice when its presence is a potential threat to our health. 

I urge you to consider how H.299 impacts you in particular and the trajectory of Vermont that you imagine during life’s quiet moments. Although geopolitical boundaries have caused us to forget, every person does, in fact, live in a watershed; the health and recreational opportunities of those downstream are determined by the presence of pollution upstream. Yes, we could probably find out, with a concerted effort and research. But do we not all have a right for our bodies to be free of toxins? Do we not have the right to protection from the disposal of wastes that threaten our right to clean water, soil, food, and air?  

As you consider these points, I strongly encourage all Vermonters to email Chairwoman Sheldon (asheldon@leg.state.vt.us) of the Committee on Natural Resources to urge her to take up H.299 for testimony. 

If this bill is taken up and passed, Vermont can pride itself on setting a wise precedent that can be drawn from in other states or communities. And it is entirely possible to achieve this — but only if regular citizens use their political will to interact with lawmakers and ensure they consider the common good.

Furthermore, if policy makers wish to attract people to Vermont for the purpose of economic prosperity, being fully transparent about our exposure to toxins and the state’s progress with mitigation can help new arrivals make informed decisions about where to live and how to safely engage with nature in our beautiful state. H.299 is a step in the process of informing our communities, holding polluting entities accountable, and finding an equitable way forward.

Anna Beach is a junior at Saint Michael’s College majoring in environmental studies and political science. 

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