Fresh from introducing legislation to provide more accessibility for New Yorkers with disabilities, Democratic state Sen. Pete Harckham had the Hudson River on his mind. It’s a natural leap for the Peekskill Democrat, he’s the chair of the state Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation after all.
Harckham said between barges being parked in the Hudson River and radioactive waste being dumped in the waterway he’s raring for a fight, whether it’s with the U.S. Coast Guard or Holtec International, owner of the Indian Point nuclear power plant.
Harckham maintains a laid-back persona (tennis shoes with his suit instead of oxfords), but it’s no indication of his dedication to public service. According to those that work with the state senator, he’s an exception to the trope of lawmakers running late to their own events, usually showing up a half hour early at least.
On Monday, he made time to speak with City & State after an event in support of his new bill, one that would provide more changing tables for people with disabilities. On the notion that differently abled people can’t explore the state as much as others, Harckham said, “That's just not right.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aside from state Sen. Rob Rolison, have you found others who understand the significance of your “Traveling with Dignity Act” bill?
We’re starting to. We just submitted the legislation. Rob was terrific. He was the first one who hopped on. There's a lot of bipartisan support when it comes to the disability community. We’ll have no trouble getting co-sponsors for this.
I'm assuming you're pleased to hear the governor decided to protect the Hudson River from radioactive waste?
Yeah, that was big and in the state Senate, that was unanimous. It was 62 to nothing. The people realize that so much of the Hudson Valley's vitality and economic well-being is tied directly to the Hudson, so it's important that we do everything we can to protect that economic asset.
As I’m sure you’ve heard there's another issue now where they’re trying to park barges in the river.
Crazy. We thought we were finished with this 10 years ago, and the Coast Guard brings it back again. We're firmly opposed to that, and we'll do everything we have to do to fight that.
Is that something you think you’ll have the governor’s backing on? Congress members have already started talking about it.
You know, on the one hand, it's a local issue. It's also a federal issue, right? We had federal legislation, so you know, the Coast Guard doing a backdoor around that is completely unacceptable. And we will go to the mat on this. We released a statement the other day, Assembly Member Dana Levenberg and I - we sent the Coast Guard a joint letter in opposition. This will not stand up.
Do you find it interesting that the environment, and specifically the Hudson River, seems to be an issue where party lines don’t seem to matter that much, like everyone understands it’s importance?
Two answers. One, the river itself is a sacred place to everybody. That's where the modern American environmental movement started, right here in the Hudson Valley, because of the Hudson River. It's the life force of this entire area. So it is a bipartisan and nonpartisan issue. But the other thing that's so vital, because as other parts of the country are literally drying up, freshwater supplies in New York state, a clean, abundant fresh water supply, will be our economic advantage moving forward. And therefore we have to do everything we can to protect those resources for the future and future generations.
Can you expand on what you mean by economic advantage?
Well, if you're a company, are you going to settle in a community that doesn't have water? Or, hey, let's move to New York, where there's fresh, abundant water supplies, where we can have sustainable communities. This is about sustainability. You know, desert communities we are learning are not sustainable. They have already used up their water. Many of them are grappling to find water. We have abundant fresh water in New York. That is going to be our competitive advantage.
Moving on to politics, Alison Esposito announced she’s challenging Pat Ryan. In general, have you seen any political shifts in the area?
We've got to see what happens with redistricting. Pat Ryan's doing a fabulous job. You know, he’s not in my district, but I work with him. I'm working with him on the barge thing. He's doing a fabulous job.
How tricky do you think those lines changing could make 2024?
You know, honestly, I focus on geopolitics the same way everybody else does. I focus on the 40th Senate District. I don't control any of that. I focus on how much work I do, and how I communicate with my constituents. That's what I focus on.
Looking ahead to 2024 and your legislative plans, what do you think your district needs?
Well, obviously, we're talking about this bill. I'm going to be working and pushing my extended producer responsibility bill. Our municipalities are drowning in waste. Our taxpayers are paying more than ever. It's an unsustainable system. So that's why I introduced it and am working with Deborah Glick in the assembly who is the chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation. The Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act is my major push, and then we continue to push for more education funding, more transportation funding to invest in our roads and bridges. And we've got the Environmental Bond Act. We've got cap and invest also. There are a lot of big things coming down the pipeline this year.
Have you been tracking developments with Central Hudson’s request to raise prices?
Well, that's before the Public Service Commission now. We've opposed other rate cases from Con Ed and NYSEG. You know, it's a mixed bag. One, we're demanding resiliency from our utilities to make our systems more resilient because of the storms we’re constantly having. That will take some investment on their behalf. We're talking about upgrading the grid for our clean energy economy. That will take some investment. But on the other hand, our constituents are so disappointed with billing errors and non resiliency, that it's a hard ask to ask people to pay more when they feel like they’re getting less.