Legislative Report 2/18/2012 - Climate Change Demands Response

This past December, after a year of hearings involving businesses, environmental groups, government agencies, and other citizens, the Vermont Department of Public Service published the Comprehensive Energy Plan.  The vision expressed in the Plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by moving Vermont to 90% renewable energy by 2050 is key to setting us on the correct path to our energy future.  Not surprisingly, there is resistance to that vision.  We get questions like: Climate change is a "hoax"; why are you wasting time on it?  How much can the small state of Vermont do to affect a global problem?  Why are we supporting energy resources that are economically unfeasible instead of cheaper coal, natural gas or nuclear? 

Looking at what is happening to our global environment, it is obvious that the global climate is indeed warming.  The north polar icecap as well as glaciers from Greenland to Antarctica are shrinking more each year causing sea levels to rise such that island nations in the Pacific are already losing substantial land mass.  And the effect is a feedback loop that is accelerating the change.  Solar energy, reflected less by the disappearing ice, is being absorbed and converted to infrared, which in turn heats the atmosphere.  Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is being released as permafrost melts in the arctic regions and organic matter that has been frozen for thousands of years decays.  Increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases are decreasing the ability of the earth to radiate heat back into space, and the exploding use of fossil fuels since the mid-19th century has caused them to increase exponentially. 

Some will say that this is just a natural progression of the earth's thermal cycle, and maybe it is considering that the human race is part of the planet’s ecosystem, just as the dinosaurs were hundreds of millions of years ago.  Maybe our consumption of fossil fuels is just a way of recycling all that stored solar energy.  And maybe it is a tribute to our efficiency that we have learned how to recycle it so quickly.

But it doesn't change the fact that more thermal energy is available in the atmosphere to cause more energetic and frequent storms.  It doesn't change the fact that a rise in sea levels caused by the tremendous release of water stored in the glaciers and icecaps will impact coastal areas on every continent.  And it won't change the fact that some areas will see increased rainfall and flooding while others will dry out as rising temperatures and disappearing polar ice cause changes in air and ocean circulation patterns.

Maybe we have already reached the point of no return.  I hope not.  But with that hope, I want to see our policies change to at least slow down, if not reverse, our patterns of energy use, not so much for the sake of our generation, but for our grandchildren and future generations.  That will only happen by reducing our fossil fuel consumption, by learning to use the clean energy supplied so abundantly by nature even if it means some impact to the visual landscape, and by investing in research and development of technologies that will help us move toward this goal.

I am proud of the work we are doing in the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee to support that goal of making Vermont a model for clean, job-creating, renewable energy development and working with other states as they implement similar policies.

The Word in the House - 2/11/2012 - Irene's Influence on State Mental Health System

A lot of the work that is being done at the Statehouse this year has been focused on addressing problems created by tropical storm Irene.  At the end of January, a few weeks into this session, a 10 year old problem was finally tackled as a direct result of Irene.  Irene did suddenly what the legislature has wanted to do for many years: it closed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. This caused severe disruption to the State’s ability to provide services to Vermonters who need acute inpatient care for mental illness. The silver lining: it forced the legislature to act and provided a capital funding opportunity that was not available before.

Since the flood, the reorganization of the mental health system has been under discussion by several committees in the House with hearings being held throughout the state.  Caregivers, hospitals, patients and their families gave testimony.  The House finally passed H.630, entitled Reforming Vermont’s Mental Health System.

The bill strengthens Vermont’s existing mental health care system by offering a continuum of community and peer services, as well as a range of acute inpatient beds throughout the state based on the principles developed by the Mental Health Oversight Committee.  These principles include:

  • meeting the needs of individuals with mental health conditions, including such individuals in the Corrections system, while reflecting excellence, best practices, and the highest standards of care;
  • providing a coordinated continuum of care to ensure that individuals with mental health conditions receive care in the most integrated and least restrictive settings available, honoring individuals’ treatment choices to the extent possible;
  • performing long-term planning to design programs that are responsive to changes over time in levels and types of needs, service delivery practices, and sources of funding;
  • ensuring that the  mental health system will be integrated into the overall health care system, including the location of any new inpatient psychiatric facilities adjacent to, or incorporated with a medical hospital;
  • distributing facilities based on demographics and geography to increase the likelihood of treatment as close to home as possible;
  • ensuring that the legal rights of individuals with mental health conditions are protected; and
  • ensuring that Vermont’s mental health system will be adequately funded and financially sustainable to the same degree as other health services with oversight and accountability built into all aspects of the system.

A key strategy of the bill is the development of a distributed system of care in order to provide services closer to where patients live while at the same time providing facilities that offer safe and secure environments for patients that require them.  The services that were provided at the Vermont State Hospital will be provided at acute inpatient hospitals throughout the state including a 14-bed unit within the Brattleboro Retreat and a 6-bed unit within Rutland Regional Medical Center, and also by temporarily contracting for 7 to 12 inpatient beds at Fletcher Allen Health Care, by providing acute inpatient services at another temporary location, and by building a 25-bed hospital in central Vermont.  Funding for these facilities will come mostly from insurance payments for the Waterbury Complex and from FEMA Relocation and Replacement assistance.  In addition, since the State Hospital, which had been decertified by the federal government due to repeated problems, no longer exists, $10M per year in federal funding is again available for operations.  This will help the state absorb the additional expenses of the temporary arrangements.  The bill is now in the Senate.

Legislative Report - 02/09/2012 - Vermont Recycles – But We Can Do Better

We Vermonters pride ourselves on being “green.”  It’s a great attitude to have.  However, we can do better.  We have had recycling programs since the 80’s and most of us do pretty well at it.  Recyclables are separated from trash for curbside pickups, and our solid waste districts are accepting more and diverse materials in their recycling streams.  But the fact is that, despite a goal set in 1999 to achieve a 50% recycling rate by 2005, Vermont has over the last decade reached a plateau of about 36%. This means 64% of everything we throw away as a state goes to the landfill.  This is a serious problem because we presently have only two operating lined landfills, one in Moretown and the other in Coventry; and the one in Moretown is estimated to have only about 18 months before it reaches capacity. 

So, the question is: how do we increase the recycling rate and reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills.  Landfill waste can include not only things we think of as recyclables, like paper, plastic, aluminum, glass, and cardboard, but also yard waste, food scraps and other organics, which make up about 23% of the waste stream in the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD). Decomposing organic matter also generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.   

My Committee, Natural Resources & Energy, is working on a bill, H.485, that addresses this problem.  This bill sets a timeline for increasing the recycling rate of materials and diverting yard and organic waste from landfills.

The first step is to require mandatory recycling of materials we normally associate with recycling.  Some solid waste districts like CSWD and the Addison County SWD already encourage this through a “pay as you throw” system, which charges fees based on the amount of material going to the landfill.  ACSWD’s recycling rate is currently around 50% as a result of this policy.  The bill will require similar policies throughout the state.  CSWD’s spokesperson, Jen Holliday, estimates that such policies can help us achieve 75% to 85% recovery of materials. 

The next step is to require waste haulers to pick up leaf and yard residual waste that is separated from other types of waste and deliver it to a facility for management of such material.  This would assure that the material can be either composted or otherwise used for appropriate purposes.  Examples of this type of material include grass clippings, kraft paper, brush, and other woody materials.

The third step would be to require haulers to pick up “source separated organic material” and deliver it to composting facilities.  This material includes food scraps, food processing residue and unrecyclable paper.  This requirement would only apply to large producers of organic waste such as restaurants, hospitals, universities, grocery stores, etc.   The amount is under discussion and ranges between 50 and 100 tons per year per producer.   Composting this material would turn waste matter into valuable compost that can be used to enrich the soil.  How valuable compost is can be seen by several commercial composting operations that have been started in Vermont, including Highfields Composting in Hardwick and Green Mountain Compost, which is run by CSWD.  Other ways of diverting organic waste have also been identified, such as sending grocery products that have exceeded shelf life but are still usable to food shelf facilities. 

Vermont can and must be more efficient with reducing, reusing and recycling our unwanted material. 

The Word in the House - 02/03/2012

The second session of the biennium of the Vermont Legislature got off to a bright and early start on January 3rd.  That afternoon most committees were already conducting hearings on bills that were presented on the floor that morning.
The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, of which I am a member, began consideration of three bills.  One of the bills, H.475, is a net-metering adjustment bill.  It identifies some technical changes to the 2011 Vermont Energy Bill (Act 47) that was passed last year.  The changes are needed to smooth out some unanticipated implementation wrinkles that surfaced since passage and to allow small solar installations of up to 10 kW in size to be permitted through a simple 10-day registration process, which is currently available for systems up to 5 kW in size.   This bill passed the House last week and has been sent to the Senate.
Another bill, H.468, is a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion on how to achieve more aggressive renewable energy goals of fighting climate change and growing a robust, green economy.  It continues Vermont’s support of renewable energy development by expanding the Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program and by proposing a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for Vermont.  The RPS sets a goal of having utilities obtain 80% of their electricity generation from renewable resources by 2025.  This bill is likely to evolve significantly during the committee process, with details changed or refined as we hear testimony from various stakeholders.
The third bill, H.485, pertains to solid waste management.  Given that there are only two operating lined landfills in Vermont , and that one of them will reach capacity within 18 months at today’s rates of trash disposal, it is imperative that we divert as much material from these streams as we can.  Vermont’s recycling rate has leveled off at around 32%.  We can do a lot better than that.  H.485 seeks to promote sustainable materials management, lessen Vermont’s reliance on waste disposal, and create a waste management system that promotes energy conservation, reduces greenhouse gases, and limits adverse environmental impact.  It will phase in, between now and 2017, mandatory recycling of common household materials that are now recycled on a volunteer basis, as well as leaf and yard waste, and “source separated” organic material from restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc.  The latter material is better used for composting to return the nutrients to the soil than for landfill material.
Other committees have also been hard at work.   Appropriations worked long hours for several weeks to construct the 2012 Budget Adjustment bill.  These adjustments are necessary to bring the budget into balance based on actual versus projected revenues and expenditures since July.  Most of the changes are in response to the devastation of tropical storm Irene.  21 temporary positions were added to the Agency of Transportation and 17 positions were added to Health Access because of increased caseload.  12 more positions were added to other departments.  Most of these positions will be filled by transfer of employees from other departments.