New York City

When environmental protection becomes personal

An interview with New York City Council Committee Chairman Costa Constantinides

Costa Constantinides

Costa Constantinides Emil Cohen for the New York City Council

The New York City Council’s Environmental Protection committee might not be the body’s most powerful, but it’s personal for Costa Constantinides, the second-term Democrat representing Astoria and northwest Queens. He told City & State why, and also discussed his committee’s expanding portfolio and whether New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s September 2017 announcement about greenhouse gas emissions will ever come to fruition.

C&S: The Environmental Protection Committee that you chair is taking over oversight of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which has lead rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy. What are you going to be looking into?

CC: I think it’s twofold. We want to make sure that the promises are being kept in relation to Sandy recovery. We want to make sure that Built It Back is continuing to help those that were injured during Hurricane Sandy, during this catastrophic event in their lives, that they are able to get back to things that the city promised them.

I think the second part of the committee, moving forward, is how do we define recovery and resiliency in a post-Sandy world, in a world where climate change is becoming all the more evident? It may not be through the large, catastrophic events like Sandy. Every year it’s gotten hotter. How do we deal with that? ... We’re actually hearing a bill later on this month that will require the city to evaluate the potential precipitation and come up with plans proactively rather than reactively to flooding in the future.

C&S: In September, the mayor touted your bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. But the bill never made it out of committee and hasn’t been reintroduced this year. What’s the latest?

CC: The bill has to be reintroduced. We have to make sure we get the bill right. We have to find a way to make sure that people aren’t priced out of their homes through (major capital improvements). We also want to make sure we get the maximum emission reductions that we can and make sure that there are some sort of labor standards and job creation as well. There’s another piece of the bill that was never introduced last term that has to be introduced, which is the financing. How are people going to pay for it? How do we create a financing mechanism for people to access these dollars to do these retrofits? We are evaluating the bill and we’re hopefully looking to reintroduce it soon, in the early part of this year.

C&S: When you introduced it, environmental groups, ALIGN in particular, said your bill didn’t go far enough. Are you taking that to heart?

CC: This bill is the largest emissions reduction policy in the history of New York City. So for someone to say it’s not strong enough? We’re evaluating the bill. We’re looking to see how we can make it a better bill, but this bill would have the largest emissions reduction in the history of New York City.

C&S: What’s your take on divesting the city’s pension funds from fossil fuels?

CC: I’m a big supporter of divestment. … These are technologies of the past that we’re going to be moving forward from in the next five years, 10 years. And making investments in solar and wind and renewable energy sources is going to be wave of the future, so I think that’s the right way for us to go.

C&S: I heard this committee is personal for you, that there’s a family connection.

CC: My son’s asthmatic. Every morning when I wake up I have to give him a vitamin, a pill, an allergy medication, something to settle his stomach because he just took that stuff – then he gets to eat breakfast. He’s 8 years old, so it’s the usual fight in the morning getting ready for school, and then afterwards, before we leave for school, I have to put a nebulizer on his face and give him budesonide. And that’s just when he’s well. When he’s sick, you add on like three or four medications. I know my son is not unique in that way. There are children all over the city of New York who have that routine every single day, if not worse.

We need to do better as a city. I represent a district that has 55 percent of the city’s power. We have all these power plants surrounding us, and the further west in the district, the closer to the power plants you go, the asthma rates spike. All this is personal to me, personal to my district. I know that we have to move to more renewable energy sources. We have to do better, not only for my son, but for all of our sons and daughters. That’s why I’m so passionate about this.