by Eric Goldstein
Four Environmental Issues That Albany Could Solve
Maybe you care about cleaning up New York City's contaminated industrial sites or advancing waterfront development. Perhaps you are bothered by cuts to recycling and the dumping of discarded tires in your neighborhood. Or you are worried about asthma and urban air pollution. If so, you've got no choice.
For assistance and relief, you must look to Albany.
This is not necessarily an appealing prospect for those residents who view New York City as the center of the universe and Albany as a remote outpost. With a politically divided state government that has been described as dysfunctional by independent observers, the idea of our state capital as a power center for environmental decision-making is something many city-dwellers would just as soon forget.
Nevertheless, political realities have made Albany an increasingly important focal point for New Yorkers seeking solutions to environmental and quality-of-life problems. Under our constitutional form of government, the city derives its powers from the state. Albany controls everything from dispensing funds for sewage treatment plants, highway projects and public transit to enforcing federal and state environmental laws here.
If anything, Albany's influence is likely to grow as Washington D.C. decision-makers (along with the U.S. Supreme Court) continue the devolution of power from the federal government to the states. And -- as the California legislature's recent action to regulate global warming gases from motor vehicles sold there demonstrates -- state governments can take action on issues when Congress is deadlocked, breaking new ground for environmental protection.
For almost every environmental issue of concern to city residents, Albany has played or could be playing a leadership role. Let us focus on four long-running environmental issue areas where legislative action in Albany has stalled, and where concerted efforts by Albany's three most powerful elected officials -- Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- could yield quick dividends.
SUPERFUND AND BROWNFIELDS
The idea of a "superfund" program to clean up abandoned industrial sites contaminated with hazardous wastes grew out of the problems that came to light in the 1970's at New York's Love Canal. In 1978, following years of complaints by community residents regarding illnesses linked to chemical wastes buried in this Niagara Fall's neighborhood, the state health department declared a health emergency and recommended that women and young children be evacuated. President Jimmy Carter declared the site a federal disaster area. And seven hundred families were ultimately moved out, part of a twelve year, $275 million state and federal clean-up and relocation program.
Recognizing that there were potentially thousands of similar sites around the nation, Congress enacted a federal superfund program in l980. Among other things, the new statute created a trust fund to help pay for the long-term clean-up of toxic waste sites that were officially included on a national priority list prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
New York State had passed its own superfund statute in l979 and amended it in l982. New York's law made clean-up monies available for toxic sites not included on the federal superfund list and as the local match for federal superfund clean-ups. Both the federal and state superfund statutes empowered government officials to seek out those parties responsible for creating the pollution and have them assume the clean-up costs.
Over the past twenty years, the state program has funded the clean-up of over 400 hazardous sites around the state, with clean-up operations underway at another 500 locations.
Unfortunately, the state program -- like the federal superfund program -- has run short on cash. As a result, clean-up activities across the state have been stopped or delayed at dozens of sites, no new clean-ups have been started in two years, and nearly 800 potential sites have not yet been investigated or remediated.
Meanwhile, other less contaminated sites, which have not been placed on the state or federal superfund lists but which nevertheless warrant clean-up, too often lie fallow and present an obstacle to urban redevelopment. Such sites are often referred to as "brownfields" (as distinct from undisturbed, rural "green fields").
Although no precise count of the number of brownfields in New York City is available, experts believe that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such properties throughout all five boroughs, with many in waterfront areas.
Among many community residents, there is a strong desire to put these brownfield parcels back into use for the community, but to do so in a way that is protective of public health and safety.
In weighing the merits of various brownfields proposals, "we need to determine if we're going to be stewards over the land for generations, or whether we'll just do what's expedient," said Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action.
Two obstacles to new superfund/brownfields legislation are disagreements over how superfund and brownfield clean-ups should be funded and what clean-up standards should be applied to these toxic sites.
"We feel the biggest problem with the superfund is getting money into the program," Tom DiNapoli, new chairperson of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee recently told the New York Times. The stumbling block is disagreement over how much money will be available for superfund and brownfield clean-ups and what proportion of the funding will come from business fees vs. public revenue sources. Governor Pataki has also tied refinancing of the superfund program to substantive changes in the law, a position that the Assembly leadership has opposed.
Regarding clean-up standards, the problem is that existing state law does not set forth specific, enforceable standards for the level of clean-up required at either superfund or brownfield sites. Instead, the level of pollution clean-up at these sites is decided by the State Department of Environmental Conservation on a case-by-case basis. That approach concerns some legislators from both parties.
"Loosey, goosey . . . it's an ad hoc thing," is how Senator Carl Marcellino, the Republican chairperson of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee describes the current clean-up regime.
Indeed, in recent weeks, the State Senate, under Senator Marcellino's leadership, advanced new superfund/brownfields legislation that included compromise language that some environmentalists believe held promise. But when the legislators went home at the end of June, the deadlock had not been broken.
To many observers, the Pataki Administration bears at least partial responsibility for the lack of progress.
"The Governor has not been willing to move beyond clean-up standards that let developers off the hook for thorough clean-ups," concludes Environmental Advocates, a leading statewide environmental organization, in their July publication, "The Green Sheet."
Another complicating factor has been the different emphases of environmental groups -- with some stressing the importance of jump-starting brownfields redevelopment and others focusing on the need for tight clean-up standards to minimize public health risks. "We've really felt the damage of a divided environmental community" on these issues," said one government insider who preferred not to be identified.
Despite the challenges, many participants in the on-going debates say the time has come to advance some compromise legislation -- with new funding and clearly articulated clean-up standards.
"If they don't come back and finish the job," said Environmental Advocates' Jeff Jones, referring to the Legislature and the Governor, "a tremendous opportunity will have been lost."
SOLID WASTE DISPOSAL
Historically, the question of how to deal with the 24 million tons of trash generated annually in New York State has been strictly a local responsibility. But in the 1980's things began to change. Responding in part to growing statewide litter problems, the legislature enacted the "bottle bill" in l982, It required a 5 cent deposit on all beer and soda containers sold in the state.
Then, with New York City running out of space to bury its garbage and threats to Long Island's groundwater from leaking landfills, the legislature passed the Solid Waste Management Act of 1988. Among other things, the law required all localities to adopt long-term solid waste plans that conformed with the state's new waste management priorities -- waste reduction, followed by reuse and recycling, incineration and land burial, in that order.
Recent developments in New York City on recycling have left waste experts refocusing attention on Albany to provide needed relief. On July 1st, the Bloomberg administration, citing a need to close the city’s budget gap, instituted the first major citywide cutback to the recycling program since the landmark recycling law was enacted by the City Council in l989. The mayor's new budget suspends the collection for recycling of plastics (for one year) and glass (for two years). Recycling of paper and paper products is continuing. So is the recycling of metals, thanks to the insistence of City Council leaders.
But with New York City having closed its last landfill to regular trash, and with costs for trash export climbing, most waste specialists believe that efforts to strengthen recycling in New York City are more important than ever.
"Probably the most important thing that Albany can do in the waste area is to help recycling -- by returning to New York City the tens of millions of dollars in unclaimed nickel deposits that city residents pay out annually, but which the beverage distributors have been pocketing for themselves for 20 years," says Mark Izeman, an attorney and solid waste specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work as well).
On this issue, environmental activists believe they have found a pot of gold that is rightfully theirs -- if only the state legislature can overcome the beverage industry's pressure to retain its current windfall. Since l983, when the bottle bill took effect, state figures show that beverage distributors have benefited from more than one billion dollars of unclaimed nickel deposits that have been paid by, but not returned to, New Yorkers. The state's current estimate is $85 million a year in such unredeemed deposits, and other experts place the number much higher.
Regardless of the precise amount, if New York City were able to get its share of these unclaimed deposits to support recycling operations, the financial outlook for the city's program would brighten considerably.
The second major item on the solid waste agenda for Albany is the expansion of the bottle bill itself. The idea is to require five cent deposits not just for beer and soda containers, as is now the case, but for other non-carbonated beverages (such as iced-teas, sports drinks, fruit drinks and bottled water). Supporters of this approach believe it would further reduce littering around the state, ease the waste-handling burden on cash-strapped municipalities and produce tens of millions of additional monies for local recycling programs every year. >
This idea is being championed by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and is picking up bipartisan support, led by State Senator Kenneth Lavalle and Assemblyman William Colton, among others.
"The real opportunity for innovative solutions to environmental problems rests at the state and local level," says Spitzer environmental analyst and Albany veteran Judith Enck, who believes that a "bigger, better" bottle bill is an idea whose time has come.
Of course, not everyone supports expanded bottle bill legislation.
"We think it's a terrible proposal," says Michael Rosen, of the Albany-based Food Industry Alliance, a trade association representing retail food stores around the state. Rosen worries that the plan would "place the burden of expanded recycling clearly on the shoulders of food sellers," creating "a space and logistical nightmare."
But proponents of bottle bill expansion counter that similar legislation is already in place in such states as California and Maine, that the retail food industry in those states has adjusted to the changes, and that those who produce or market consumer goods must begin sharing the burdens and costs of their disposal.
MILLIONS OF TIRES
Also trapped on the Albany legislative merry-go-round is the issue of discarded motor vehicle tires, which continue to pile up on abandoned lots, highway shoulders, and unoccupied properties around the city and throughout the state.
In New York City, more than four million tires are discarded legally or illegally every year, according to Sanitation Department estimates. In addition to being an unsightly neighborhood blight and a potential fire hazard, waste tires can collect rainwater and become an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, including those that spread the West Nile virus.
Solving the tire disposal challenge has been on the Albany agenda for years. Task Forces have reported. Studies have been completed. But no legislative action has followed.
Then, this past session, it appeared as if the wait might finally be over.
"The Governor made a real breakthrough," according to Environmental Advocates' Jeff Jones. He agreed to move legislation that would assess a $1.25 fee on the sale of all new tires, with the funds to be used to assist in the clean-up of tire piles and to advance the use of collected tires in the manufacture of new rubber products.
The tire legislation cleared the Assembly Ways and Means Committee recently, and its prospects looked strong. But then, as happens in the sometimes convoluted Albany legislative process, the fate of this bill was tied to other legislation. The proposal was tacked on to the Senate's superfund/brownfields bill. When superfund/brownfileds stalled, the promising new tire legislation was pulled down too.
Unless the legislature returns to the issue in the fall, expect the unrelenting dumping of waste tires to continue in a community near you during 2003.
POWER PLANT SITING
It sounds like the kind of issue that city residents couldn't care less about -- conditions for power plant siting under Article X of the New York Public Service Law. Unless, of course, you happen to live near one of the eight proposed sites for new power plants in New York City.
Within the bureaucratic thicket of Article X hides a process than could potentially affect air quality and community character all across the city. Under state law, a utility seeking to construct new electric generation facilities in New York State must first secure approval from a board on electric generation siting, composed of various heads of state departments and agencies.
The Article X process has as its stated goals protecting the environment and public health while promoting a reliable and affordable power supply. Nevertheless, environmental and community groups have challenged its effectiveness in accomplishing its self-declared mission.
The law expires at the end of this year and must be reauthorized to keep in place what is theoretically a streamlined process with provisions for community participation. The question of what changes , if any, should be made to the Article X siting process before legislative reauthorization has generated considerable debate in energy circles.
Community and environmental advocates have raised three major issues that they believe should be addressed in any new siting statute. First, they argue that all new siting reviews should be required to consider the cumulative air quality impacts of other proposed power plants in the community where the proposed plant would be located. Next, they call for a full assessment of the impacts of proposed plants on levels of very small particulate matter (referred to as PM 2.5) as part of every siting review. Third, they maintain that the siting board should explicitly examine the environmental justice impacts on the surrounding neighborhood of allowing each new proposed facility.
"Everyone said 'Oh, yes -- we like your three issues,' but no horse- trading took place," reports NRDC attorney Kit Kennedy
"The parties [the Assembly, the Senate and the Governor] got as close as three parties could come to without actually resolving the issue," says Lisa Garcia an attorney working on energy matters with the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It shows," she continues, "how the politics of it all gets in the way of real productivity."
As things now stand, the Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Tonko and others, which addresses many of the environmental community concerns. A bill supported by the power companies would shorten the siting process and further weaken the ability of environmental and community groups to participate in the siting process. That bill never got out of committee. The deadlock continues.
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
There may be reason to hope that these long-standing environmental proposals will be resolved before too long. Insiders note that two key players -- Assembly Environmental Conservation Chair Tom DiNapoli and his Senate counterpart, Carl Marcellino -- have often sought to put aside partisan bickering; they have remained in contact with one another throughout the session. In addition, the continuing failure to move some of these matters could lead to actual funding crises, often a prod for final action. And the climate for actually passing legislation may improve -- after the November elections.
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