January 30, 2020 @ The Gateway Center, Newport VT
Approximately 45 participants attended this conversation. Organizations represented include Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity (DUMP), Northeast Kingdom Organizing/Center for an Agricultural Economy, Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District, Newport Rocks, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Vermont Department of Health. Refreshments, child care, and a $20 cash stipend were provided to each participant. The event lasted two hours and was guided by the following agenda:
- Refreshments & Dinner, Informal Mingling
- Overview of Environmental Justice & Introduction to the REJOICE Project
- Small Group Discussion I: What are the key environmental and health issues of concern to your communities related to… Quality of Life? Health Impacts? Disaster Resiliency?
- Large Group Report Out I
- Group Discussion II: How do you get the information and resources you need to address an environmental or health concern? Do you feel this is adequate? What opportunities do you see to increase community access to information and resources? To improve community health?
- Looking Ahead, Timeline & Closing
Summary Reflection on the Content
- “It is not just about the environment.”
- “There is no environmental justice without housing justice, economic justice, transportation justice.”
- “We can’t just put in a stovepipe and say we have a good policy unless it is going to be comprehensive.”
- “Socially and ecologically it is all important.”
- “We need this [policy] to be integrated structurally. We are wasting our time unless it is a global approach.”
- “Policy requires funding.”
- “The environment does not stand alone. Environmental Justice has to be a subset of the vision for a state that takes care of its citizens.”
- “All the different issues that we face in this area…we could think about all the policies that highlight all these issues and slowly be able to focus on the environmental parts. Everything is so deeply entwined, policy needs to highlight the stories of rural people…I think that is why it is so important to have an environmental justice policy.”
- “I think it is extremely important that you realize that our area is the sacrifice zone. When you talk about a sacrifice zone, that comes with real criteria…corporations taking over, health issues, people not having a voice. It is not a feeling, it is facts. I do not think that is talked about at all.”
Attendees were concerned about drinking water and the quality of the water in Lake Memphremagog. Uncertainty over how to test home water sources and fear of the safety of public drinking water was prevalent. Residents are also concerned about blue green algal blooms in the lake and the associated effects on human and animal health. Fish cannot be eaten from the lake and it is unsafe to allow pets to swim in and drink from the water. One participant spoke of two relatives dying of Legionnaires disease, which was suspected to be connected to the local water quality.
The Coventry Landfill, the only active landfill in the state, was of great concern to the attendees of this meeting. Noise from dump trucks and smells from the landfill permeate nearby residents’ homes. People from all over ship their trash to this landfill, yet local taxes were raised and residents are not seeing any benefit from hosting the toxic site in their community. Furthermore, there is no easy way to get garbage to the dump; lack of trash pickup access makes recycling and garbage disposal difficult for elderly residents. There is a shared sense that, if this community had a larger tax base, there would likely be no dump in the area. Attendees were clear that garbage was being sent there because the area is economically challenged and the voice of the wealthy is more readily heard than the low-income community’s voice. It was also noted that the Canadians were very helpful relating to environmental concerns in the landfill process – some thought more so than their own government officials.
Several people reported on a recent hazardous event that involved spillover from the landfill, coupled with a rain event. There was shared uncertainty and mistrust over what extent environmental impacts and environmental evaluations, including soil and water testing, were taken into account during the permitting of the landfill and following this hazardous event.
“[The environmental detriment that has happened to our area over the years] was so subtle that we didn’t even notice it. Dumps around the state closed and we were not watching what was happening and all of a sudden we have the only dump in Vermont and everyone claims we gotta keep it because it is the only one in Vermont. Nobody is really looking because of our low income and because of a corporation and its affinity with the government and the benefits they give each other…we ended up very unequal in the state. Sometimes if you do not ask people about those things, this will not come up in the policy.”
Old housing with black mold and asbestos was the most concerning housing issue identified by attendees. Clean up and remediation of mold and asbestos is too expensive for many homeowners and landlords. Affordable, safe housing is limited, and waitlists for housing assistance are very long. Residents described feelings of immobility; they cannot just pack up and leave or sell their home, and they are stuck in housing with poor indoor air quality and no means to fix it. Another issue related to housing is the increasing rate of homelessness and long waiting lists for people seeking one night of shelter. The number of people on waiting lists for housing seems to be growing and affecting quality of life for all people of Newport. Tiny houses could be explored and supported by policy as an affordable housing option.
“When I meet homeless people who come into town, I tell them all the programs that can help them, since they would have no way to know otherwise.”
There is a self-identified “doctor drain” occurring in the Northeast Kingdom. An immense need exists for health care services, especially in the area of mental health, but there are hardly any local specialists. There are limited doctors and dentists operating in the area and it is difficult for hospitals and local healthcare providers to retain doctors over time. Many people are forced to go to Dartmouth or Burlington to access healthcare services. The City of Newport also currently lacks a health inspector. Many attendees of this meeting work in the health care field in some capacity and spoke to this service deficit. One such health care worker pointed out that the Newport area has one of the highest percentages of people living with disabilities under the age of 30. Some attendees thought a lack of medical infrastructure was what keeps good doctors from staying and investing in a career in the Northeast Kingdom.
Reliable mental health care was the number one overall issue identified by attendees. Good, reliable health services, especially mental health services, represent a critical factor affecting the quality of life of Newport residents. People experiencing mental health crises are often forced to go to the ER and are given wrong diagnoses and/or increases of prescription medications. High addiction rates were also identified as a problem tied to poor mental health care. Attendees spoke of the link between mental health, substance abuse, and incarceration – all three of which are issues of major concern to the people of Newport. The veteran community in the Northeast Kingdom is also strained by the lack of mental health care services.
Suicide rates in the community are high. Lacking a sense of community, lower doses of sunshine, and vitamin deficiency can also negatively contribute to mental health conditions. People spoke of structural issues leading to a feeling of hopelessness, which in turn leads to mental health issues and drug addiction. All the stressors identified throughout this conversation combine to place increased burdens on mental and physical health. The attendees of this meeting feel that there is not adequate accountability or focus on outcomes of health programs; funding sources should look more closely at the outcomes of programs to measure success and direct spending.
Obesity is another health concern for Northeast Kingdom residents. There is a noticeable diet change that results from a person living on social security; healthy food is expensive and income limits are restrictive. Attendees also reported experiencing illnesses as a result of mold exposure. Some spoke of noticeable health changes when they moved to Newport – one attendee cited heart issues which began when he moved to the area, another spoke of “spitting up white goo” after a move. Frequent illnesses and high rates of pneumonia and bronchitis were mentioned. A focus on environmental effects such as exposure to pesticides and agricultural runoffs was identified as an area that should be studied further.
The “benefits cliff”, as it currently exists, traps people in a cycle of poverty: effectively forcing people to choose between health or employment. In order to qualify under the income limits for affordable housing programs, food stamps, or health insurance, many people are disincentivized to work for the simple reason that with any increase of income, they will be kicked off these services and yet still be unable to afford them. This drastic cut-off of services affects older people, younger families, and people who need mental health services most severely. One example given at this meeting was of a pregnant woman who works three jobs and, because she is now married, lost her health insurance. She is now considering getting a divorce or quitting her jobs because she feels there is no other way to afford health insurance. Many people on social security or with lower-income jobs would benefit from just a little bit of assistance; there could instead be a “benefits ramp” where people could receive less benefits when they earn more income but not be removed completely from programs.
“Overall, our lives as a poor community or as poor people are just kind of expendable. Our issues when it comes to our health and wellness are not taken seriously because we can’t just pay somebody off to take care of everything.”
“[There is a feeling of] othering of human beings in our communities – human beings that are maybe not as privileged. I feel like my voice has never counted.”
“There are not a lot of places for emotional support. People get burnt out. They are so busy trying to survive, they do not have time for anything else. There needs to be balance. That is why so many people struggle with mental health, addiction, [and] health issues. Part of a basic need is connection; people need to be understood. So many people are giving up and then being shunned in their communities and being written off [or sent] away, [that is why we have] high suicide rates. People just need to remember that we are all people and we all face different barriers in our lives and we all want connection, love, [and] understanding. We do not get it though. A part of that is trust. There’s not a lot of participation in the community because there is not a lot of trust.”
Expensive rent, electricity bills, and heating sources burden all residents, and as access to heating assistance has gone down, the cost of heating has gone up. There are energy efficiency programs available, however, people with experience trying to access these programs say they were hard to understand and manage; there is a need for case managers or other tailored efforts to help navigate energy programs. Access to power and telephone infrastructure is not readily available to many Northeast Kingdom residents; some houses are off-grid and not by choice. There was confusion as to why larger renewable energy projects such as solar arrays on local farmland do not feed a local system and instead ship energy away from the area. There was also interest in better understanding rainwater collection policies in the state.
Aside from owning a car, Newport residents experience a lack of viable transportation options. Many attendees said transportation is a daily struggle for them, and several spoke of their concern about the carbon footprint of the current transportation model. Lack of reliable transportation makes engaging in the economy, accessing healthcare, and participating in local government extremely difficult for the people of the Northeast Kingdom. Attendees recognized that public transportation is an investment which requires significant upkeep and inspection, but agree that increased public transportation is a service that will benefit the whole community and is worthy of investment.
There was a strong desire among attendees to have more buses in service around the area. They were aware of the new electric buses in Chittenden County and thought Newport would benefit from a similar service, including bus lines that not only transport to medical providers and business but also to recreation points like the beaches. Residents are aware of one local bus stop, but it is not active.
There is a ride service, Rural Community Transportation (RCT), but the eligibility standards for the program are restrictive; some attendees felt the income limit was too low to make this a viable transportation option. There are some taxis, but getting a ride across town can cost $50. Elderly residents without a car have difficulty getting to doctor appointments.
There used to be more rail services in the Newport area. Attendees recall being able to take the train from Newport to Connecticut; now they have to get to White River Junction in order to use the train.
The sidewalks are icy and poorly maintained in the winter, most affecting people who cannot afford other modes of transportation.
Local efforts by churches, neighbors, and social services to feed the community were deemed “heroic,” and yet still inadequate to meet the needs of Newport. The local grocery store recently stopped carrying as much organic food, presumably because the more expensive food was not selling. Food stamps can, however, be used at famer’s markets when they are available. Many people reported having to travel in order to get healthy food. Family Dollar is one of the more accessible stores, however much of the food is canned or highly processed.
Residents report that food programs in Newport are limited and can be difficult to participate in; residents felt they would benefit from more caseworkers to help navigate available programs. Income limits for meals on wheels is restrictive; you are either in or out of this program and cannot voluntarily sign up if you need assistance for a short period of time. Northeast Kingdom Community Access (NEKCA) provides food for low-income people, however, many people at the meeting said they have received rotten/expired food and were not satisfied with the service. People reported being treated poorly when trying to access this service.
Community gardening efforts are helping Newport residents to access nutritious food and cut down on their carbon footprint. Seeds for gardening are expensive; more “seed exchanges” could cut down on the cost of seed. Concern for the rights of migrant farmworkers was also expressed. It was recognized that deporting farmworkers is creating additional burdens on the food system.
“I do not think many people in the Northeast Kingdom feel like they’re thriving. This is sad because it is beautiful [to live here]. It is hard to talk about environmental stuff when there are so many issues that we face day to day. We need to talk about people getting out of survival. What is it like to thrive in our communities?”
There is a tremendous sense of community in Newport with many willing people who want to work, build, and grow their community. One attendee described the economy of Newport as being made up of people who need services and people who provide services. Such an economic system does not function to sustain itself. The “middle class” can no longer work 40 hours a week at a regular job and keep their head above water or save money for the future. The income vs costs associated with living, trying to raise children, and caring for the aging population are drastically out of balance. The primary focus for most people is not on thriving, but on simply surviving.
The current economic structure does not value human survival. Often when a person gets a job they lose access to health insurance, food stamps, and other support. Some choose not to work in order to remain eligible for these life-saving services, which in turn lowers the community’s tax base. A lack of purpose or “usefulness” contributes to social and addiction issues in the community. Crime and incarceration are also issues resulting in part from a broken economy. More resources in the hands of more people will stimulate the economy.
Tourism and the natural resource/agricultural economy has long been a cornerstone of the Northeast Kingdom, however, people feel that leaning too heavily on tourism is not the sustainable, regenerative economy that will trickle down to the younger generation. Attendees worried that children who are growing up in damaging home environments will be so affected by their circumstances that the whole generation will be unable to be healthy and productive in the future. An increased focus on and investment in younger people would ensure the future wellbeing of the community.
The scandal surrounding the downtown development property known as “the hole” has residents concerned that future development plans for the community will be decided upon without their input. If the community is a meaningful part of this process, it could be a catalyst for rebirth of the community.
“The context of this community [is that we have] had two assaults: one is the fact that we have the only dump, which has significant environmental ramifications in multiple ways – water, trucks, spill, the other issue is that we are the source of the greatest economic scandal in the state’s history. The community is somewhat distinctive in that we are starting at a significant deficit, we can’t even get to first base because we are already in a hole.”
Fair Treatment and Meaningful Involvement
This was the theme that seemed to generate the most discussion and frustration of all the topics discussed. Many of the attendees of this meeting regularly participate in local government in some way, and described that despite their best efforts to be involved, their officials do not take their voices into account in decision-making:
- “The community understands what is wrong, [the] questions really need to be how can you educate the leaders to address the problems.”
- “Many of us have already stepped up to take part in our local government. I feel very capable, I know how to access my government.”
- “They hear you, they just do not care.”
- “The lack of agency or voice that we have in downtown Newport impacts our quality of life.”
- “A lot of stuff gets pushed through and now we have disparity.”
- “[We are] ignored, unheard, not listened to.”
- “When local government is not responsible, what is left to do? Our hands are tied and we are disenfranchised.”
- “When your local [politicians] will not listen, you can give up on the state level.”
- There is “no accountability” for decision makers to consider the voices of the community.
They also felt left behind as a community by the rest of Vermont:
- “Why are we getting less here? We are just as valuable as the rest of the state.”
- “[We do not have] equal representation in the statehouse.”
- “We are greatly misrepresented because there are a lot of people on disability [or] on welfare.”
- “Our area is misrepresented because they go by income taxes, so all the people that do not pay taxes are not counted. If you do not have taxable income, you do not have to file taxes.”
- “We need more senators.”
- “If all the Northeast Kingdom got together, we would have as much clout as Burlington.”
- “People that live up here in the Northeast Kingdom, we talk [about] equality and stuff…in this country, each state has two senators. When you come to the state of Vermont, you wonder why we get dumped on. We have two senators that cover Orleans and Essex. Chittenden County gets six senators. That is not equality, that is so wrong.”
- “[Instead of treating people as collateral], people should be treated like people.”
- “We are hidden and not taken seriously, politically.”
- “We do not seem to be a population that is being taken seriously. They use us for politics, but you are treated differently when you are needing services.”
- “If anyone wants to get something done [in the state or community], they just need a name and the right amount of money. All this money is going into politics and it is going to the people who have the money.”
- “The elite who run the world have had centuries to perfect their system. This is why the rich should be taxed more. If you have billions, you should let the little people have more.”
Participants did not simply discuss the challenges, however, without advancing what they thought could be done to increase their enfranchisement and voice:
- “How can we educate the leaders in how to build community and gain trust?”
- “[Leaders] need the resources and education to respond to the problems. Our city needs diversity training to even be able to address some of the concerns that we have. It is not us that do not have access to proper information. They, the leaders, need to learn from the citizens, from us.”
- “Communication between state agencies” should be strengthened while “reinvent[ing] government [so that it] does not feed bureaucracy – it feeds its citizens.”
- “Our bureaucracies have developed over time but our communities have changed quickly. Government infrastructure lacks the ability to be nimble enough to adjust to contemporary issues.”
- Since “state government channels federal grant money to end user,” the state must be held accountable to equitably distribute funds to the people. Instead of accountability, “nothing happens, nobody listens, nobody cares, nobody takes the money away.”
- “Leaders do not respond and need to be educated.”
- “[This] conversation is uncomfortable for people…it’s people’s lives and their livelihood.” There needs to be emotional support and accountability to “avoid burnout [of the people] just trying to meet basic needs [while advocating for] decisions that will impact their quality of life”.
- “Make people feel like they matter.”
- “Reaching out like you are doing right now is helpful.”
- “[This effort will build] stronger and more supportive communities.”
What Worked Well…
- “You have a good thing going. I have 0 negative feedback.”
- “Nicely organized – food, conversation, funding. Nice to be heard.”
- “Listening to the community’s concerns and connecting environmental to other concerns.”
- “Excellent presentation overall. The forum allowed everyone to participate in different ways.”
- “Wide cross section of people.”
- “Thank you for coming to our sacrifice zone!”
- “Very respectful, loved the way you framed gettin paid for your time.”
- “Meeting agenda and structure was easy to follow.”
What Could Be Improved…
- “Angry about how the questions limit the knowledge you will obtain about a community.”
- “You need an action plan with concrete changes.”
- “I would have handouts people can review later after the meeting.”
- “Firmer ground rules, no interrupting, need to set clearer guidelines.”
- “I appreciate your efforts. I doubt things will change without a major effort made by everyone.”