Albany Wrap-Up 2010: the Good, Bad & In-Between

As we head into the new year – with a new governor and a chance to get the state’s budget back on track – I’ve been reflecting on the past year in Albany: the good, the bad and the somewhere in between. After all, the best resolutions are borne of personal reflection and putting lessons-learned into action, right?

The Greatest Recession dominated every political or policy discussion in the New York State Legislative session in 2010, and it’s a safe bet that it will suck most of the oxygen out of the room in 2011, as well. For former Gov. David Paterson, few executive decisions, particularly on the environment, weren’t circumscribed by his budget woes. He left office unemployed – still one more way the stagnant economy keeps giving him grief, even out of power. 

As for the environment, here’s a look at the highs and lows of what this past legislative session held for New York:

Advocates & residents fought back against park closings

Early last year, Paterson proposed to close 57 state parks and reduce operations at 22 others. This was short-sighted in many ways; 56 million people visit New York’s state parks every year, spurring a substantial amount of economic activity (estimated at five-fold the cost of keeping them open). Moderate-income families especially use the park system during summers and on holidays; in truth, taxpayers view parks as one of the most popular government assets. Plus, many thousands of jobs are at stake in keeping them open.

The campaign to keep the parks open unified the state’s environmental community and spurred a Facebook campaign that allowed residents to adopt a park (including one in Paterson’s and my home town, Hempstead Lake State).  This gave rise to a bipartisan effort to find $11 million to keep targeted parks open.  Luckily, an agreement was reached in May – mission accomplished.

Then came the first Paterson two-step…

Paterson slashed funding for environmental projects

While the parks were saved, the Governor eviscerated the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), a crucial source of funding for environmental projects in the state, such as land preservation investments, open space protections, clean air and water programs, and much else. He slashed the EPF by about 40 percent, with most of the cuts coming from the land preservation categories.

The state Division of Budget has long wanted to pull the specially designated reserves away from EPF for the general fund.  Paterson bought this argument, ignoring the counter-facts that a healthy environment is good for tourism, public safety and the economy.

Parks saved, EPF looted.  One step forward, and one step back.

Standing up for safe drinking water with partial fracking moratorium

The same minuet was repeated last month when the hydro-fracking moratorium bill came to Paterson’s desk. This bill created a moratorium for permits on two kinds of wells – vertical and horizontal gas wells, both tied to drinking water contamination around the country – until May. It had previously passed the state Senate last summer and passed the Assembly in the fall. Both houses had strong bipartisan support in special sessions that had limited legislative activity otherwise.

The gas industry put a full-court press on Paterson to veto the bill, manufacturing a false argument that vertical wells were safe and jobs would be lost if they were not developed. The reality: no jobs would be lost if vertical wells were banned, and vertical wells are also dangerous (they’re behind the infamous contamination next-door in Dimock, PA) and excluding them from the moratorium undermines its intended purpose. In fact, the legislature had decided to include vertical wells in the bill because big oil and gas corporations had threatened to circumvent any moratorium by converting the verticals to horizontal as soon as the moratorium expires this spring. Under current spacing laws, 16 vertical wells, compared to one horizontal well, could be drilled per square mile, increasing the environmental impact of drilling 16-fold beyond what the state was already concerned about.

Paterson heeded industry’s call and vetoed the bill.

But it wasn’t a complete loss. Instead of signing the bill, he issued an Executive Order creating a moratorium for horizontal wells only until the state completes a revised draft environmental review of the proposed gas development in the state.  While he ignored growing evidence that vertical wells, now free of any moratorium, have continually resulted in considerable groundwater contamination, he still made New York the first state to stand up to gas companies before allowing drills to break ground.

Again, one step forward, another step back.

New York gets new recycling program for electronic waste

Despite the budget crisis and the gubernatorial fits and starts, there were several slam-dunk environmental successes this year.  A major one, which NRDC fought hard for, was a seminal, nationally acclaimed electronic waste recycling law. The law mandates that electronics manufacturers bear the responsibility to take back their products – which contain toxins and shouldn’t be thrown out with the rest of your trash – from consumers to responsibly recycle them.  The used computers, televisions and other electronic goods are then removed from landfills and incinerators, where they contaminate the surrounding air and water.

By April 1, 2011, under the new law, electronics manufacturers will collect and safely dispose of the items they produce, providing the incentive for the companies to make toxin-free products from the get-go. The manufacturers opposed the bill strenuously – aside from Apple, which played a crucial supporting role.  Industry opposition led to negotiation, then to another round of opposition. As often is the case, once a critical mass of support was reached in the Senate, across both aisles, the industry opposition melted into thin air.

New Yorkers will now have a way to easily recycle their electronics beginning this year.

Helping New York communities practice smart growth

Another undiluted success was the passage of the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Act, a long-winded title for a strong, fairly broad law that will help ensure New York’s communities are developing and operating in better ways for the environment across the board – from transportation, to sewers, water, education, housing and most things in-between. This act requires most state agencies and all state authorities, prior to approving or funding any public infrastructure project, to prepare and file an environmental impact statement finding that the project is consistent with smart growth principles.  Under the new law, each covered agency also has to appoint an advisory committee to promote smart growth goals as formal agency policy. 

So what does the last year in Albany tell us? The long shadow of disastrous and enduring budget problems that impeded other progress last year will no doubt continue to plague the legislature and the new Administration.  But as we continue to fight for New York’s public health and environmental protection in 2011, we can build on the hard work, coalition-building, and advocacy skills of New York’s environmental community that are responsible for the successes of the year past.