by Will Brunelle
Published by City & State on September 30, 2015
Despite the state issuing a formal ban on hydraulic fracturing and releasing its long-awaited, oft-delayed renewable energy plan, lawmakers will once again face several big environmental conservation issues when they return in early 2016.
Last session, environmental bills like the Child Safe Products Act and the Microbead-Free Waters Act fell by the wayside, to make time for more prominent arguments over expiring rent regulations and the 421-a program in New York City. The Legislature is certain to take both bills up again, along with other environmental concerns.
The Child Safe Products Act, which seeks to regulate what chemicals and materials can be used in children’s toys, died in the Republican-controlled Senate last session, after sailing through the Democrat-led Assembly. But the bill’s failure to come to the floor was not due to a lack of support, according to bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman.
“The Child Safe Products Act had virtually unprecedented bipartisan support, from a supermajority of the Senate, yet it was still blocked from coming to the floor for a vote,” Hoylman said. “I think it had over 40 co-sponsors, yet we still couldn’t get it to the floor.”
State Sen. Tony Avella, the vice chairman of his chamber’s Environmental Conservation Committee, shared Hoylman’s frustration over the bill’s failure.
“It’s now two years we’ve been close, but still we can’t get it done, and that is just disgraceful, that we can’t protect children from these unsafe products,” Avella said. “That’s going to be a major point of contention again. It’s just mind-boggling that we cannot pass this bill.”
Hoylman blamed the toy manufacturing industry for the bill’s troubles. The toymakers, wary of the cost of compliance with the bill’s chemical bans and regulations, fought long and hard to ensure that the version of the bill presented for a vote was undesirable for either side, he said.
“I think that the industry, the toy companies, have problems with the tough standards that are sought in the original bill. So the 11th-inning play was to produce an amended version, and back the Democrats into a corner,” Hoylman said. “We thought that things were too weak, and so I led a movement to pull our names off the amended version. But we definitely think that industry ... had a role in bringing forward an amended version that they saw as addressing the issue in some milder fashion.”
The amended bill, carried in the Senate by state Sen. Phil Boyle, had “loopholes so big you could drive a truck through them,” according to Hoylman. He said he and fellow Democrats would not pass a “watered-down” version of the bill, and that they intend to once again fight hard for passage of the original version of the bill.
Boyle, meanwhile, defended the rewritten bill. “Anybody who’s saying that this is not an environmentally friendly piece of legislation is just playing politics, unfortunately,” he said.“Everyone knows any piece of legislation needs to be compromised and have some insights from all sectors, and we spent many hours trying to address the legitimate concerns of industry while still having what would be, if not the strongest, one of the strongest Child Safe Products Acts in the country.
Frustration with the lack of progress on the bill has led some local legislatures to take the matter into their own hands, with Albany, Suffolk and Westchester counties all passing their own versions of the bill.
The Microbead-Free Waters Act, meanwhile, would ban the sale of cosmetics and other products containing tiny, abrasive beads, typically sold in exfoliating products, from being distributed in New York. Advocates of the bill argue that the beads pose an environmental hazard, as they are made of plastic and can absorb toxins and poison wildlife.
The bill cleared the Assembly, much like the Child Safe Products Act, but likewise failed in the Senate. Republican senators balked at the thought of imposing the restrictions on companies and potentially costing the state business, while Democrats – including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who proposed the ban initially – called the bill an imperative.
Since the end of the session, localities have taken to writing their own laws to deal with microbeads. A ban passed in Erie County and is being considered in Albany County.
The state is currently considering an application from an energy company for a permit to use gelled propane instead of water to engage in hydraulic fracturing in the Southern Tier. For once, anti-fracking advocates and gas companies are in agreement: The state’s existing administrative ban on fracking doesn’t cover this different form of the practice.
To ban gelled propane, either a state regulatory body would need to create a new policy, or the Legislature would need to pass new legislation. Hoylman said that these methods of sidestepping the existing fracking ban, and the fact that gas companies from out of state can still transport and dump fracking waste in New York, are reasons the Legislature should continue pushing for a bill to ban all forms of fracking and related practices.
“The ban was tremendous, and I have to commend (Health Commissioner Howard Zucker) and the governor for their work,” Hoylman said. But the work is not done, he said, and he and his colleagues will “take these victories in small steps.” A legislative ban on fracking and “ancillary issues” like the transportation of fracking waste would make it impossible for a future administration to single-handedly roll back the restrictions.
“The truth is, under a different governor you could have a different outcome,” Hoylman said.
New York is also using more fracked natural gas than ever before, by allowing companies to transfer the gas in from other states to fire their power plants. And with pressure on Cuomo’s administration to shutter old or failing coal-powered plants, it is likely that the demand for natural gas won’t be decreasing any time soon, which could make it difficult for the Legislature to further restrict fracking or related activities.
Avella said the state’s pipelines for transporting gas also need to be addressed. He expressed concern that pipelines are being run through “some of the best dairy farms” and other agricultural or environmentally sensitive areas, and he’d like to see the state take a harder tack against them.
“That’s more of a federal issue, unfortunately,” Avella conceded, though he promised he’d be doing his best to address the matter in the Legislature.
There are other environmental issues facing the state as well, but some fall outside of the Legislature’s reach, such as General Electric’s cleanup of PCB waste it dumped in the Hudson River decades ago. A recent report found that the state had not put any pressure on GE to expand or finish its cleanup operations. Lawmakers and municipalities have called for GE to continue its work, and called for the state to take a harder line against the company, but Hoylman said it will be “public pressure,” not legislation, that will convince the company to continue its cleanup.
Avella, meanwhile, intends to push for “Cecil’s Law,” a bill that would ban the transport, possession or sale of animal carcasses from Africa within New York. A pet project of Avella’s, the bill was inspired by the lion Cecil, which was lured out of its African sanctuary and killed by an American dentist as a trophy, an act which was widely decried as inhumane.
Avella would also like to reduce the number of crude oil trains traveling through the Port of Albany, arguing that the trains pose an imminent danger to the city if they were to derail or spill. The Republicans, however, may well take issue at the suggestion of cutting down on oil transport in the state – as well as on further limits on how or where fracking could potentially be allowed.
Republican Sen. Tom O’Mara, who chairs his chamber’s Environmental Conservation Committee, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the upcoming session, nor did his conference’s spokesman, leaving the future of major environmental issues uncertain.