Albany’s environmental agenda

Trashcan with sign "Keep New York Clean" on a street of Manhattan.
Trashcan with sign "Keep New York Clean" on a street of Manhattan.
pisaphotography/Shutterstock
Trashcan with sign "Keep New York Clean" on a street of Manhattan.

Albany’s environmental agenda

Addressing water quality, offshore drilling – and plastic bags.
December 13, 2018

Climate change isn’t just a huge issue on the national and international stage – it’s a major policy question here in New York as well. And while some environmental efforts have bipartisan support, other proposals break down along party lines – and having Democrats control both houses in the state Legislature could give some bills a better chance in 2019.

✓ Water quality

Water quality continues to be an ongoing issue in New York. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act in order to begin repairing and replacing aging water infrastructure across the state. However, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has estimated that the state needs $40 billion in repairs to its drinking water systems, while the state Department of Environmental Conservation predicted an $80 billion price tag including wastewater systems, so the legislation is just a first step.

“I regard it as a down payment on an urgent necessity, not a complete project,” Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chairman of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, said.

He added that he plans to continue having discussions with the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation about the implementation of the provisions in the law. He gave the example of distributing funds for watershed protection, a category in which he said no progress has been made.

Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said that water contaminants like PFOA, PFOL and 1-4 dioxane are still a concern in certain parts of the state. She also said her organization wants to see more done about lead in water, particularly in schools. A report in September found that over 1,000 New York City public schools still have elevated lead levels in their water fixtures.

✓ Offshore drilling

Earlier this year, Cuomo introduced the Save Our Waters bill in order to prevent potential exploratory offshore drilling proposed by the administration of President Donald Trump. Around that time, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had announced that all the coastlines in the country would be open to oil and gas exploration. Although the bill passed in the Assembly, it stalled in the Republican state Senate.

Englebright said that the Assembly will pick the legislation back up in the new session, which may have a better chance of passing with the new Democratic control of the state Senate.

“We are very concerned that New York waters not be used to support, land and waters, not be used to support this wrongheaded initiative,” Englebright. He warned that offshore drilling would be “incredibly destructive.”

Tighe said that she would much rather see the coast be used for offshore wind initiatives that will help bring the state closer to its renewable energy goals. “We need to make sure we are speeding up our adoption of renewable energy,” Tighe said. “Right now, we have a process that is not moving quickly enough to allow siting of wind and solar projects.”

✓ Recycling

Tighe said that recycling is a major priority for her organization, noting that China changed the entire world market when it stopped recycling the rest of the world’s plastics for them at the beginning of the year. She said that this has started to cause some problems for certain municipalities in terms of collecting recycling in order to increase the material’s value.

“But it creates confusion for the consumer,” Tighe said. “So we’d like to see a big public education campaign associated with educating the public about how to recycle right.” Tighe also said she hopes to see support for innovation in the creation of end-products to fuel the actual dealing with the recyclable materials.

Food waste, which makes up 18 percent of solid waste in the state, can also fall under the umbrella of recycling. Right now, most of the food goes to landfills, but state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, chairman of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, hopes that might change in the coming session.

“It seems to me like a crazy thing not to address,” Kaminsky said. “You have a lot of hungry people who should be able to eat food that may not exactly be marketable, but is certainly edible.” The Food Recovery and Recycling Act, which Cuomo has proposed for years, would require state agencies to divert their food waste away from landfills, but the legislation has never passed, nor has it made it into the state budget.

Although Kaminsky would not speculate on this or other specific bills, he said it is a shame that the issue of food waste has never been acted upon.

✓ Resiliency

As the state contends with stronger and stronger storms as the result of climate change, resiliency will surely be an important topic of conversation in this and other upcoming sessions. Englebright said that right now, those conversations are very preliminary and fully formed policy has yet to emerge to address issues like rising sea levels.

“It’s going to be costly,” Englebright said. “We’re just beginning, I think, in that area to explore what needs to be done.”

Kaminsky said that he and Englebright have not had a chance to speak about this or other issues yet, but he expressed support for more public discussions about resiliency efforts.

“The more we get out of Albany and out of our comfort zones, speak to people we don’t normally come in contact with, the better,” Kaminsky said. He also added that he would like to see of some of the $2.5 billion included as part of the Clean Water Infrastructure Act be used for resiliency efforts, something he said he has spoken to some other members of the Senate.

“I think in this day and age, there’s a realization that storm hardening in advance makes a lot more sense than cleaning up after a disaster,” Kaminsky said.

✓ Plastic waste

A proposed plastic bag ban is a perennial issue in Albany that will more than likely emerge once again in the 2019 session. After shooting down New York City’s plastic bag tax in 2017, which would have needed state approval, Cuomo in April proposed his own statewide plastic bag ban. 

However, that legislation, which was only ever introduced in the state Senate, never advanced. Kaminsky said that with Democratic control of the Senate, and with an entirely Democratic state government, the issue will certainly be an important point of discussion.

“I can say confidently that our conference will be discussing that,” Kaminsky said. “I think it’s fair to say there’s a general understanding of a problem that needs to be corrected.” Kaminsky said a few other lawmakers had approached him about the topic, but that the conference as a whole has not yet decided on the specific direction it will take. He suggested the issue of plastic waste and a potential plastic bag ban may be well-suited for outside input through public hearings.

RELATED: Could New York go carbon free by 2050?

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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