Clearing the Way to Clean Up New York

In the final days of 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have extended a state program that gives tax credits to developers in exchange for cleaning up vacant, polluted sites before building on them, setting the stage for a new round of negotiations with the Legislature over the program’s fate this session.

The measure, which the governor blocked on the night of Dec. 29— the last possible day he could exercise his veto power in 2014—would have kept the so-called Brownfield Cleanup Program alive through March 2017. Now it is due to sunset by the end of 2015. But Cuomo’s move has been welcomed by environmental and other groups, who say the program is ineffective in its current state—both as an efficient cleanup mechanism and as a vehicle for helping downtrodden upstate urban communities, which was a goal of the program in the first place.

“The problem is that the biggest tax credits have gone to projects in up-market areas that probably would have been built anyway, while down-market communities—inner city and upstate—continue to be burdened by contaminated lands,” said Val Washington, board president of New Partners for Community Revitalization, an organization working to renew low-and moderate-income neighborhoods by redeveloping brownfield sites.

Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of the Environmental Advocates of New York, told City & State last spring that on top of providing tax breaks for lavish projects such as the Ritz-Carlton hotel in White Plains, the program has been far from economical, costing New York more than $1 billion over its 10-year lifespan while only around 150 brownfield sites have been developed under the program.

Still, the overall value of the program has been widely acknowledged—not just by the governor but by lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate as well. Yet while Cuomo included in his 2014 budget a proposal to reform and extend the program for another decade, the measure was not included in the final deal struck with the Legislature in March. And although legislators indicated interest in hammering out a long-term plan during the remainder of the session, nothing ever materialized—hence lawmakers’ attempt to extend the program in its current state through 2017, and the governor’s refusal to accept what was essentially an act of kicking the can down the road.

The reasoning behind such a short-term fix is simple: Developers line up projects based on the knowledge that tax credits will still exist when the job is finished, and with the program set to expire this year, it is no longer possible for new projects to reach completion in time to qualify.

“You’ve got contaminated properties that are sitting out there, not only in Western New York but throughout the state, that the developers now will be reluctant to make a commitment to, not knowing if they’ll be able to proceed with the program or not,” said state Sen. Pat Gallivan, a Republican who represents an area between Rochester and Buffalo.

The proposal for a temporary extension came after months of closed-door talks, but one reason lawmakers did not agree on a more lasting deal might have to do with another environmental cleanup initiative—the state Superfund program, which has long been a priority for the Assembly and which is also nearing the end of its funding.

Last year, Robert Sweeney, the Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, told City & State that the Assembly always tied Brownfield Cleanup and Superfund together, and while the governor put forth a robust brownfield extension in his budget, his Superfund funding proposal was for only a single year, essentially the same Band-Aid approach that he eventually vetoed in the case of the brownfield program. Sources said the Assembly would not accept the one-year Superfund extension as presented in Cuomo’s budget.

“The Assembly felt that you just can’t have one without the other, and in the end we got nothing,” Laura Haight, an environmental analyst from the New York Public Interest Research Group, told City & State at the time.

While the brownfield program is essentially an economic development program, making it a clear priority for Senate Republicans as well as Assembly Democrats, Superfund is solely aimed at designating, monitoring and cleaning up of the state’s most toxic sites—a clear imperative from an environmental and health perspective, but without the obvious economic benefits.

Whether or not the Assembly will continue to couple the brownfield and Superfund cleanup programs isn’t clear. (Nor is it clear how, or if Superfund will be extended.) But according to Iwanowicz, there will likely be action on reforming the brownfield program.

“We’re expecting the governor to re-propose his reform package that he put out last year around this time,” Iwanowicz said. “We need to also figure out a long-term funding stream for cleaning up Superfund sites too.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is on board with the brownfield extension, at least. “That’s something that we should approve,” he told City & State in an interview several weeks ago. “But approve for a 10-year period so developers can come in and understand what they’re going to do when they make their investment and so that many of these blighted areas can be remediated and improved.”

Energy & Environment Issues

Many owners of homes or small businesses cannot afford to install solar panels on their roofs—or perhaps they do not want to. Legislation from Assemblywoman Amy Paulin would modify the net metering law to allow residents to tap into community solar installations sited off their property. Paulin has said that her other top legislative priority is expansion of a pilot project in Westchester County that allows municipalities to collectively share power contracts with the aim of lowering prices and prioritizing renewable resources. These initiatives could complement Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, which is seeking to fundamentally restructure the state’s energy grid and how New Yorkers consume our power.
A December report from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found that staffing levels at the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been falling since 2003, and funding, which has barely kept pace with inflation, is now projected to decline. In the meantime, the agency’s responsibilities have grown. The comptroller recommended a “reconsideration of appropriate funding levels,” but it’s an open question if the governor will heed the call in his budget proposal.
The measure, which would ban certain toxic chemicals found in children’s toys, found resistance in the state Senate, where Republican Leader Dean Skelos blocked it from coming to the floor for a vote. Proponents are optimistic about its chances this year.
The dramatic increase of freight trains carrying crude oil through New York has drawn increasing concern about safety and environmental hazards from advocates and public officials alike. While Cuomo wrote a letter to the White House imploring the federal government to strengthen regulations of crude oil transport, the state Legislature may act on the issue as well. A number of Assembly bills were drafted or introduced last year, focusing on heavier fines for train safety infractions, making sure companies carry enough liability insurance to clean up potential accidents, and increasing the state’s oil spill fund—but it is not yet clear if any of these have a chance of passing.
Last year the fund, which is dedicated to restoring and protecting the natural environment around the state, was increased for the second year in a row—from $153 million to $162 million. While still significantly diminished from a 2009 peak of $255 million, the sum is nonetheless an improvement upon the $134 million flat-line that occurred between 2010 and 2013. It remains to be seen if funding will be boosted again this year.
An executive order from the governor’s office mandating that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced 80 percent by the year 2050 was issued in 2009. But with no law on the books to give it teeth, the order remains an ideal with no clear organizing principle for how to get there. With the passage of just such a law by the New York City Council in 2014, environmental advocates are now hoping to see action on legislation that would provide a similar roadmap for the state. But although bills to this effect have been floating around in the Assembly for years, it is unclear if the issue will be seriously considered in 2015.