Archive for August 2021

The Summer Days Are Waning, but Algal Blooms Are Growing

Posted by NYPIRG on August 30, 2021 at 9:57 am

The evidence is all around us:  Bigger and more deadly storms; once-in-a-1,000 years heat waves; much of Western North America in flames; and unprecedented flooding across the world.  There is no doubt that global warming is real.

The combination of hotter summers and strong storms is not only damaging; it also can cause serious health problems.

One example is the growing presence of toxic algal blooms in lake water.  Harmful algal blooms are more frequent and occurring earlier across New York and the nation.  They can pose a threat to recreation and can taint drinking water supplies.

Harmful algal blooms aren’t your typical green surface ooze that you may see on the top of lake waters.  While ugly to look at when at the surface, a bloom can also be dangerous, so much so that the state has a blanket policy to stay out of the water should there be evidence of one.

While every algal bloom isn’t toxic — some algal species can produce both toxic and nontoxic blooms — toxic blooms can cause problems for swimmers and other recreational users in the form of rashes or allergic reactions.  People who swim in a bloom may experience health effects including nausea, vomiting, headaches, respiratory problems, skin rash and other reactions.  There have also been reports nationwide of dogs and livestock dying shortly after swimming or wading in a bloom.

The blooms are a blue-green slimy substance.  They often crop up in late summer and early fall, (although they have already started to show up in New York’s surface waters) when waters are warm and calm.  They also need nutrients to bloom, so they’ll often be observed after heavy storms.

The nutrients they primarily rely on are phosphorus and nitrogen.  The algal blooms have increased due to a rise in nutrient runoff from sources such as soil erosion from fertilized agricultural areas and lawns, erosion from river banks, river beds, land clearing (deforestation), and sewage effluent.  All of these are the major sources of phosphorus and nitrogen entering water ways.  These nutrients coupled with warm, calm water is the recipe for an algal bloom.

The heating planet also drives algal blooms.  Warmer temperatures prevent water from mixing, allowing algae to grow thicker and faster.  Algal blooms absorb sunlight, making water even warmer and promoting more blooms. 

Climate change will lead to more droughts, which make freshwater saltier.  This can cause marine algae to invade freshwater ecosystems.  In the southwestern and south central United States, toxic marine algae have been killing fish in freshwater lakes since 2000.

Algae need carbon dioxide to survive.  Higher levels of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels can lead to rapid growth of algae, especially toxic blue-green algae that can float to the surface of the water.

Unfortunately, the recent heat waves helped trigger some algal blooms that showed up in lakes and reservoirs across New York State.

As of today, there are 47 lakes confirmed to have algal blooms, including the drinking water supplies for some towns in upstate.  When the blooms are found in drinking water supplies, it can result in that system being unusable for human consumption.  For the past three years, for example, Onondaga County’s Skaneateles Lake had multiple toxic blooms during the summer months.  The toxins threatened the drinking water of not only local town and village residents, but also those in the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas.

Another example, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, is the 23 confirmed blooms of toxic algae on Cayuga Lake in July.  At that time, there was no threat to drinking water supplies, but swimming was limited.  Cayuga Lake, however, continues to be plagued by algal blooms. 

In other areas, surface waters have seen algal blooms, but public drinking water supplies were not under threat.  In Rensselaer County, for example, Glass Lake has had a confirmed algal bloom.  In New York City, Prospect Park Lake and Central Park Lake have both reported algal blooms.

To check out the New York lakes for which algal blooms are a concern, you can go to the DEC website, which has a harmful algal bloom notifications webpage that it updates regularly.  If you identify an algal bloom and want to report it, send a photo to the DEC.

While we all must do everything possible to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aggressively embrace energy efficiency programs and alternative energy sources, due to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up.  There is not much that New York can do to reduce the damage that has already been done and that is fueling the current rising heat of the planet.  But when it comes to protecting surface waters and drinking water supplies, the state has to do a lot more to reduce the runoff from agriculture, landscaping and wastewater sources.  New York must be proactive about protecting drinking water supplies and recreational waters.

Failing to do so will drastically compound the looming catastrophe of what global warming is doing to the atmosphere.  Water is a precious resource and we must act to safeguard it.

Placing Limits on a New Governor

Posted by NYPIRG on August 23, 2021 at 11:11 am

This week, Governor Cuomo is expected to resign effective just before midnight Monday into Tuesday.  The current Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul will be sworn in as the state’s first woman governor.  Cuomo is leaving office under a cloud – a devastating report issued by the state’s Attorney General documented claims of sexual harassment and a “toxic” environment in the governor’s office. 

Governor Cuomo maintains his innocence, but nevertheless is resigning.  Without getting into too much detail, the AG’s report documented an out-of-control executive branch that was more interested in settling political scores than following standards of professionalism, and (in the case of the governor), state, and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Coincidentally, this week the state Senate Ethics Committee will be holding a hearing to examine the effectiveness of the state’s ethics laws and their enforcement.  The hearing had been planned in advance, so its timing as the new governor enters office is fortuitous.  Thus the Senate is to begin a long-overdue review of ethics laws and – in the context of the controversies that have driven Governor Cuomo from office – to develop a blueprint to ensure that professionalism and ethics are the standards for public servants in New York.

One important lesson from the current scandal is that New York’s executive is too powerful.  The state’s Constitution grants New York’s governor extraordinary powers and, in the hands of an extremely skilled politician, that power can overwhelm the checks and balances necessary to safeguard the state’s democracy.

Recent court decisions have granted New York’s governor powers not dreamed of by his predecessors.  As we’ve seen, using those powers a governor can install allies into key positions, including the agencies that have been established to watchdog governmental excesses.

A prime example has been the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which has been widely viewed as an extension of the governor’s office.  The first three executive directors all came from the governor’s staff (or when he was attorney general).  Both of the governor’s book deals – generating nearly $6 million in combined outside income for the governor – were approved by JCOPE staff without going to the full Commission. 

Under state law when the JCOPE Commissioners meet behind closed doors to discuss investigations, those deliberations are supposed to be secret.  Two Commissioners have come forward to say that the person who appointed them – the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – was called by the governor with a complaint about their comments in a private session.  That private meeting was to discuss whether the JCOPE should take action against the governor’s former aide Joseph Percoco for corruption.  Apparently, the governor didn’t like what those commissioners said.  How did he find out?  And was this the only time that secret Commission discussions were leaked to the governor in violation of state law?

Another entity that needs to be reformed is the state’s Inspector General.  The Inspector General was charged with investigating the JCOPE leak, but she said she could find no evidence of it – yet there was no interview of the governor or the Assembly Speaker – itself a scandal.

The list goes on, but it stems from an executive that simply has too much power.  American democracy is supposed to be based on a system of “check and balances” to ensure that no one branch of government dominates the others.

In New York, the separately elected state Attorney General and the state Comptroller are supposed to have the independence to act as a check.  But one of the first actions of newly elected Governor Cuomo in 2011 was to pull back the oversight powers of the Comptroller.  It could be argued that scandals have resulted.  It was the lack of oversight of state contracts awarded to an arm of the State University’s “Buffalo Billion” program that led to the corruption convictions of Joseph Percoco and another top aide to the governor.  Governor Cuomo was not charged in that scandal.

At the core of the governor’s immense powers is his constitutionally protected ability to drive policy decisions as part of the state budget.  The state Constitution has granted the executive the upper hand in budget negotiations.  This conflicts with the central tenet that there should be a balance in lawmaking, with the executive proposing plans and the Legislature considering and then approving them.  In our system, the Legislature is the primary policymaking body.

It has become clear, however, that the advantage granted to the executive in the budget process has given the governor the leverage to expand his control more broadly over governmental decision-making.  Keep in mind that the state’s budget – now topping $200 billion and the largest state budget in the nation – is the foremost action taken by the Legislature each year.

Legislation to change the Constitution is needed to better establish a system of “checks and balances” to limit the policymaking authority of the governor in his budget.  It is this system of checks and balances that keeps one branch from dominating policymaking.  It is that balance – coupled with the establishment of truly independent ethics watchdogs – that will ensure that the executive branch doesn’t lose its professional and ethical moorings in the future.

Let’s hope that this latest gubernatorial resignation will force New York State to establish balance between the branches.

Steps for the New Governor

Posted by NYPIRG on August 16, 2021 at 8:34 am

After his bombshell resignation announcement, Governor Cuomo will soon leave office and Lt. Governor Hochul will take over.  And while the investigations are not over – most notably whether the Administration illegally withheld data on COVID deaths in nursing homes, whether Governor Cuomo used public resources in drafting his $5.1 million book, and whether the Administration compromised safety in the building of the Mario Cuomo bridge – one thing is certain: Incoming Governor Hochul will need to take actions to restore public trust in state government.

The Attorney General’s seismic report substantiating the harassment charges leveled against Governor Cuomo painted a picture of an out-of-control executive staff that created a “toxic” work environment and were willing to use confidential personnel records – including of former staff – to smear the governor’s critics.

In addition, related issues continue to fester.  In addition to the ongoing investigation into misuse of public resources to draft the governor’s book, there is also the issue of how the state’s ethics watchdog (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, JCOPE) blessed the book deal it in the first place.  Apparently, the proposal never went to the ethics agency’s full Commission for discussion.  Why?

Moreover, there is still the issue of how Governor Cuomo found out about the ethics watchdog’s confidential discussions on its investigation of Joe Percoco, Governor Cuomo’s now imprisoned former right-hand aide.  The state Inspector General’s review of the JCOPE leak didn’t find anything, but she never interviewed the Governor or the Assembly Speaker – a scandal on its own.  Who illegally leaked information to the governor?

And while we’re at it, there is still the Administration’s habit of endlessly dragging out Freedom of Information Law requests – effectively denying the public timely access to public records.

Unfortunately, the Assembly Judiciary Committee has so far refused to release the findings of its investigation.  New Yorkers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work and the public deserves, at a minimum, a report on what the Committee found – if anything.  There are other investigations that are ongoing: the state Attorney General (investigating the governor’s book deal) and the federal Department of Justice (investigating the reporting of nursing home deaths). Those investigations must continue with findings publicly reported.  It’s hard to fix problems unless you know that they exist.

Soon-to-be-Governor Hochul will have her hands full pulling together her leadership team, managing a sprawling state government bureaucracy, developing a state budget for January, and handling the ongoing pandemic.  But restoring public trust should be near the top of her list.  Here are some steps:

  1. Release documents that could shed light on any improper actions of the executive staff. Demand that staff who remain commit to the highest levels of professionalism and public service.
  2. Issue an executive order restricting the governor, lieutenant governor, agency heads and policymaking executive branch staff from making outside income without the written consent of the ethics oversight agency’s (JCOPE or its replacement) commissioners.
  3. Flatly ban the use of government resources on personal matters, including using government lawyers for personal legal matters.
  4. Replace the state ethics watchdogs (JCOPE and the Legislative Ethics Commission), both of which are dysfunctional, opaque and ultimately unaccountable to the people.
  5. Create a genuinely independent state Inspector General — one that does not report to the governor’s office – staffed by civil servants (with the IG having a term of office and termination only for just cause).
  6. Require that all agencies strictly comply with the time limits set in the Freedom of Information Law.  It’s hard for government to be held accountable to the public it serves when it operates in secret.
  7. Prohibit those seeking government contracts from making campaign contributions to relevant elected officials or their related political parties.
  8. Restrict lobbyists from making campaign contributions.  Albany allows lobbyists to make campaign contributions to the governor and state lawmakers, even while the Legislature is in session.

This long list just touches the top layer of the changes that are needed.  In addition, the new governor must set a new tone – in the way she personally operates and in the manner in which her staff behave.

Winston Churchill reportedly quipped, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  New York State is once again in crisis.  Ms. Hochul must rise to the moment.

Earth’s Climate Is at a Point of No Return

Posted by NYPIRG on August 9, 2021 at 6:04 am

This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will begin to release its first major assessment of human-caused global warming since 2013.  The report will be released in a world that has dramatically changed over the past eight years.  The average global temperature has increased from roughly 0.3°C higher in 2013 than the Earth’s average temperature during preindustrial times to nearly 1.3°C above that level today.  As a result, weather has grown more severe, seas are measurably higher, and mountain glaciers and polar ice levels have shrunk sharply.

We’ve all seen the impacts.  Last month, a heat wave triggered Greenland’s biggest melting event of the 2021 season.  Danish researchers found that enough ice melted to cover all of Florida with two inches of water.

These same weather patterns were linked to record-breaking temperatures – and the resulting fires – in Western North America, Turkey, and Greece, as well as flooding seen in Europe, China, and India.  California is experiencing the largest wildfires in recorded history.

Last week, that news was amplified by reports that the human-caused warming has led to an “almost complete loss of stability” in the system that circulates Atlantic Ocean currents. 

This circulation is at the heart of Earth’s climate system, playing a critical role in redistributing heat and regulating weather patterns around the world.  It transports warm water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water back south along the ocean floor.  

As the current gains latitude it cools, adding density to waters already laden with salt.  By the time it hits Greenland, it is dense enough to sink deep beneath the surface.  It pushes other submerged water south toward Antarctica, where it mixes with other ocean currents as part of a global oceanic circulation system. 

Climate change has disturbed the balance.  Higher temperatures make ocean waters warmer and lighter.  An influx of freshwater from melting ice sheets and glaciers dilutes North Atlantic’s saltiness, reducing its density.  If these waters aren’t heavy enough to sink, the entire circulation will shut down.

While the researchers did not predict an imminent collapse, their findings suggest that the circulation is weakening, making it more susceptible to disruptions that might destabilize the system.

None of this, unfortunately, should come as a surprise.  Scientists have predicted for decades that the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – were heating up the planet and would lead to the devastating consequences that we are now experiencing.  And some of those scientists worked for the oil companies themselves.

Instead of being a conscientious global citizen, the oil industry embarked on a decades-long campaign of deception that undermined environmental science.  The industry went further, installing toadies throughout the political and civic worlds to parrot those lies.  And it worked: Nothing of significance took place to avert the disasters that the world is now experiencing.

So, what should be done?

In the short-term the world must wean off its addiction to energy powered by fossil fuels.  Also, nations must start building modern infrastructures that can limit the devastation from global warming.

In the U.S. Senate, last week U.S. Senator Van Hollen of Maryland, joined by Vermont Senator Sanders, Massachusetts Senators Markey and Warren, and others, advanced a proposal to make these climate polluters pay $500 billion toward the infrastructure costs the nation faces to address climate changes.

The climate changes resulting from the burning of fossil fuels cost – and will continue to cost – the nation dearly in damages in the form of more powerful storms, intense and frequent heat waves, powerful floods, and more pollution.

The Senators model their legislation on the nation’s toxic waste site clean-up (“Superfund”) law.  The Superfund law uses a “polluter must pay” model.  The aim is to hold fossil fuels companies responsible for costs tied to the climate crisis.  Assessing polluters, whose decisions fueled the climate crisis, to help pay for the nation’s effort to adapt and mitigate the costs of climate change is the fairest and most just way to proceed.

Following the Senate’s announcement, New York Congressional Representative Bowman pledged to advance a matching bill in the House of Representatives.

As the Congress takes the next step in its budget reconciliation process, paying for the enormous infrastructure needs of the nation will move to center stage.  Ensuring that those most responsible for the climate changes that are damaging our roads, bridges, mass transit, and drinking water systems, makes sense.

Make the climate polluters pay.

New York Public College Students Catch a Break

Posted by NYPIRG on August 2, 2021 at 8:20 am

As we all know, going to college is expensive.  For many families, the cost of attending college has been financed through credit – relying on the government or private lending institutions to provide the money.  While that credit is important to meeting the needs of a college student, that debt does have to be paid back. 

Nationwide, these college loan debts now total $1.5 trillion – far more than any other line of consumer credit outside of home mortgages.

It’s not hard to understand how this impacts Americans: For those who took out the loans, that credit must be paid back and that can undermine financial stability – and future career choices – of those families and the students themselves.

Tackling that problem has been near the top of the Congress’s agenda.  In March, the Congress passed legislation that provided more than $36 billion to institutions of higher education to help with the costs associated with grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Colleges and universities received their funds based on a formula that considered the number of students enrolled, with a weight for lower-income, needy students.

The new federal law allowed institutions to cancel debts – incurred during the pandemic – that the students owed to the institutions.  It did not allow institutions to cancel all federal student debt.  Federal student loans account for most of the outstanding student debt, with private loans and institutional debts making up the remainder.  Currently, payments and interest on federally held student loans are suspended until the end of September, providing some breathing room for those with college debt.  New York U.S. Senator Schumer is pushing for an elimination of all student debt, but as yet the Congress has not acted (although hearings on the topic are scheduled for next month).

But Congress’s action earlier this year is impacting the nation: Across the country, colleges and universities are cancelling pandemic-driven debts students owed to those institutions.

Here in New York, college borrowers carry an average balance of nearly $36,000 — though that’s lower than the average borrower in the U.S. (nearly $37,000).  Overall, there are 2.7 million student loan borrowers in New York, with debt totaling nearly $100 billion.  Not all of the student loan borrowers are in their 20s and 30s; many have been forced to extend their student debt well into middle age.

Those attending public colleges and universities typically have less debt, since attending those institutions is less expensive.  In the City University of New York system for example, the average debt balance is about $2,000.  Yet, given that CUNY students are far more likely to be economically disadvantaged, paying to attend can be a strain.

The pandemic has made it worse.  CUNY student debt nearly doubled during the pandemic.

The City University announced last week its program to use federal stimulus money to finance some student institutional debt forgiveness.  All outstanding tuition and fees — such as the technology and activities fees —for the spring 2020, summer 2020, fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters are eligible to be forgiven for qualifying students.

It’s estimated that 50,000 CUNY students will be eligible to have their student debts cancelled under the initiative and that the program will wipe out up to $125 million in unpaid student debt.

CUNY students with proven financial hardship, including students eligible for Pell Grants, will automatically have institutional debt created by tuition and fees covered without the need to apply.  Qualifying students who already paid their tuition and fees will be eligible for a onetime $200 reimbursement.

Students at publicly funded universities typically pay hundreds of dollars in fees each semester, costs that are typically not covered by financial aid or scholarships.  The CUNY program will cover those costs if they are an outstanding debt in a students account.

The State University of New York (SUNY) is also developing its plan to grant relief for outstanding tuition and fees incurred by students during the pandemic.  They have already begun providing relief – SUNY has stated it has provided relief since the beginning of the pandemic totaling over $500 million.  Its institutional debt forgiveness plan is next.

These are undoubtedly important and positive steps to offset the financial hits that college students and their families have experienced since last spring.  But it also raises another issue: Should public colleges and universities be charging tuition at all? 

A century ago, the nation established a system of universal education that helped the nation to transform itself into a world leader.  Given the complexity of modern society, should that goal be extended through college?

We say yes.  But in the short term, giving college students and their families financial relief is a welcome move.