Albany Agenda

NY lawmakers focused on environmental legislation this week

From Hudson River clean-up to natural gas hook-ups, lawmakers took action on protecting the state’s natural resources.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to address persistent levels of toxins in the Hudson.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to address persistent levels of toxins in the Hudson. Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress

There’s been a flurry of climate actions in Albany this week between lawmakers passing bills, activists holding rallies and calls to action for government agencies. Some of the activity even extended to Washington. Just in time for budget negotiations, advocates for New York’s environment are turning up the heat.

The state is reportedly not on track to meet its 2030 climate goals. With a sustainable future for New Yorkers in doubt, some feel there isn’t time to waste. 

Earthjustice Policy Advocate Liz Moran said the climate goals shortfall was just the tip of the iceberg after the intense weather New Yorkers saw in 2023. 

“Last year we really saw a remarkable sequence of events, where we had the wildfire smoke from Canada that made the air quality in New York unsafe to breathe, smoky for days. Not long after that, we had unprecedented flooding that led to the shutdown of the MTA and Metro-North and people were stranded, and then we saw a heatwave,” Moran said. “On top of all that, utility bills are going up across the state, and that’s because of our reliance on gas.”

She said now there’s a built-in urgency because people can physically see what they’re trying to prevent, and this week reflected that.

The New York Heat Act passed in the state Senate on Tuesday. The legislation is aimed at winding down natural gas infrastructure. It would give the Public Service Commission more power to align regulations for gas utilities around the state’s landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates the state reduce its emissions from 1990 levels to the tune of 40% by 2030 and by 85% in 2050. The bill also removes subsidies for new natural gas hookups. Assembly Member Pat Fahy sponsors the bill in her chamber, where it currently sits in committee. The Assembly’s one-house budget only included some components of the act which some advocates said was not enough. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has also expressed concerns over the bill before. 

Speaking on the Senate floor this week, bill sponsor state Sen. Liz Krueger said that the bill responds to both legal mandates and scientific evidence proving the severity of the climate crisis. She added that it could lead to savings for ratepayers.

“We have passed other laws in this state saying that we’re no longer going to be allowing gas and oil-driven new buildings,” Krueger said. “We’re going to continue to retrofit buildings, but why would we continue to demand ratepayers pay up to $200 million a year to build pipes that are no longer legally going to be able to be used?” 

On Wednesday, lawmakers passed a bill that would ban carbon dioxide fracking. Use of the chemical remains a loophole in New York’s existing fracking ban. State Sen. Lea Webb and Assembly Member Anna Kelles sponsored the bill, which passed in the Assembly the prior week. Citing the damage it can do to water tables and local environments, Webb told reporters the bill was crucial to protect communities like the Southern Tier district she represents. 

“We all need access to clean water,” she said. “And that's not relegated to a particular geographical location, a lot of our waterways are connected and so what happens in the southern tier also has a ripple effect throughout the rest of the state.”

Webb added that leaving the loophole unchecked could have opened a can of worms for fracking in general.

“There's concern that if we don't close this loophole sooner rather than later, it is going to essentially open the proverbial gateway for further exploration, which is also going to be problematic,” she said. 

The Hudson River also got some focus this week with state lawmakers and advocates calling for a full cleanup. General Electric dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, a “forever chemical,” into the river between 1947 and 1977. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually oversaw a cleanup that ended in 2015, but pollutants are still found in the river at unsafe levels. 

On Wednesday, Hudson Valley lawmakers and environmentalists said the federal government needed to get involved and see that the river was fully restored. State Sen. Pete Harckham likened General Electric to a child in their lack of follow through.  

“GE’s pollution of PCBs in the Hudson River was a stain on the entire Hudson River Valley. It's a stain on the environmental movement. It's a stain on public health, and when they were required to clean it up, we had the expectation that they would clean it up,” Harckham said. “You tell your kids to clean their room, it doesn't mean clean one section of your room – it means clean your room – and GE needs to clean up its mess and that's what the EPA needs to tell them.” 

GE’s view was that their work was comprehensive and PCB levels in the river had declined significantly. 

“Hailed as a ‘historic achievement’ by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, GE’s Hudson River dredging project removed the vast majority of PCBs in the upper river and led to broad declines in PCB levels. Data collected by New York State following the completion of dredging showed that more than 99% of sediment samples in the Upper Hudson were below EPA's dredging criteria,” a spokesperson said in a statement to City & State.

Riverkeeper’s Senior Manager of Government Affairs Jeremy Cherson said that the issues in the Hudson River have been a thorn in the side of residents for decades. Cherson said that while it’s not necessarily easy to remedy pollution, it’s still something people expect the government to take care of. He expects a report in April that will check in on the progress of the Hudson River’s cleanup and expects it to be damning. 

“We're going to see if they're going to twist the data to come out with the decision to either kick the can down the road or let GE off the hook,” he said. “We hope they don't do that because last time they kicked the can five more years down the road saying they need more data. We have the data, and it shows that we're not meeting the goals.”

The attention to the river didn’t stop in Albany. A bipartisan group of New York’s Congress members saw their bill banning barges from docking in the Hudson River make it out of committee with a vote expected in the coming months. The practice of docking the ships, which often carry asphalt or oil, can cause leaks that eventually end up in the Hudson River to wind up in communities' water supplies.