Untreated sewage from Manhattan flowing into the Hudson River. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Written By: Jennifer Smith
In the New York City of common imagination, something sinister lies beneath the looming facades and bustling streets, something akin to the proverbial alligator in the sewer system. Though never at a loss for excitement and glamor even as the city enters an age of global climate change, it faces a complex set of environmental concerns. Albeit, they’re everything you would expect from a booming metropolis: waste management, energy consumption, air and water pollution, and the latest issue, hydrofracking waste, which could metaphorically step in for that alligator patrolling the pipes.
In celebration of Earth Day, environmental organizations and government agencies alike have brought these issues to light through a host of different events and initiatives. Still, one event in particular, taking place at the New York State Capitol, strives to codify environmental protection measures into state law. As of late, state environmental regulations are weakened by loopholes and stalled by inaction.
The 22nd Annual Earth Day Lobby Day will take place on Wednesday, April 25 in Albany, where citizens will push state lawmakers to address flaws in the system that hold the state back from positive environmental change.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the state-level issues at the heart of the event, according to one of the many participating organizations— the New York League of Conservation Voters.
Like anything else, protecting the environment costs money. Recently, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed maintaining the Environmental Protection Fund at $134 million, the same level as in 2011-12, after it was dramatically slashed from a $250 million-high in 2008-09. Still, it’s up to the state legislature to finalize the budget, hence New York could see the current number change for better or worse.
“The state has a small pot of money that it sets aside for conservation issues,” says Dan Hendrick, Communications Director at the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Whether it’s habitat protection or solid waste or municipal parks improvements, they have what’s called the Environmental Protection Fund, which is the line in the state budget that we are looking to increase and improve.”
One such improvement deals with currently untapped revenue in terms of environmental funding: unclaimed bottle deposits.
New York’s “Bottle Bill” stipulates that distributors and retailers collect small deposits on bottled beverages, which encourages consumers to return the empty bottles to get their deposit back (usually about a nickel). When consumers don’t return the bottles, the beverage companies must transfer about 80 percent of those unclaimed deposits back to the state General Fund. The state collected $224.6 million in unclaimed deposits from August 2009 through November 2011. However, those funds equated to little environmental benefit. A measure that would transfer unclaimed bottle deposits directly to the Environmental Protection Fund (rather than the General Fund) was turned down earlier this year, along with the funding of a health-specific study of hydraulic fracturing.
New York is close to obtaining a national leadership position in terms of solar energy, but the state’s clean-energy downfalls are costing residents valuable jobs in a burgeoning industry. While Gov. Cuomo addresses solar energy with his NY-Sun Initiative, where he sets goals for increasing the state’s solar energy generation and even offers tax credits for the installation of solar energy systems, again, it’s up to the state legislature to commit.
“New York is currently seventh or eighth in the nation in terms of the amount of solar energy that we have installed,” Hendrick says. “But what’s interesting is there’s a couple states right next us, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, New Jersey in particular has been fantastic on this, where they installed more solar energy last year than New York ever has in our entire history. They are taking off right next door, and we want New York to be able to compete. Not only for bragging rights, but for clean-energy jobs.”
According to Hendrick, some New York-based solar manufacturers and installers are sending employees over to New Jersey to follow the market shift. That’s where there are solar energy programs championed by the state, he says.
Hazardous Hydrofracking Waste
Hydraulic fracturing, sometimes referred to as fracking or hydrofracking, is a relatively new and very controversial process for mining natural gas deposits. It is a process where a mix of water and chemicals are forced into the earth to release the natural gas inside the rock, namely shale. New York happens to sit on a huge stretch of it, the Marcellus Shale, which is quickly becoming the focus of the in-demand natural gas market.
The idea of intentionally contaminating water obviously doesn’t sit well with environmental groups, but what’s more disturbing is how the state defines hydrofracking wastewater in terms of hazardous materials.
“There’s kind of a loophole right now that allows fracking waste to be treated as nonhazardous waste when in fact, it really does meet the federal definition of hazardous waste, “ Hendrick says. “So it’s sort of a legal distinction, the end result being if hydrofracking is going to end up going forward, then we want to make sure New York’s water is protected.”
According to the New York League of Conservation Voters’s website, the Assembly passed a bill to close this loophole in February, but companion legislation still needs to be passed in the Senate.
Graph depicting the way in which fracking is executed. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
To finally return to the New York City sewer system, a chief concern amongst Earth Day lobbyists deals with residents’ right to know when sewage contaminates New York waters.
“In Harlem, there’s a New York City water treatment plant, and last year they had a fire,” Hendrick says. “For several days, untreated sewage flowed into the Hudson. Right now, there’s no state law that actually requires the public to be notified when sewage contaminates our coastal waters, our lakes, our rivers … so basically that leaves millions of people at risk for contracting illnesses.”
Earth Day Lobby Day is free and open to the public, and amongst all the aforementioned concerns, a major push will be towards passing a public notification law.
For more information and links to New York-centric environmental studies and statistics, visit the New York League of Conservation Voters website.