Archive for December 2021
Posted by NYPIRG on December 27, 2021 at 8:29 am
Posted by NYPIRG on December 20, 2021 at 8:32 am
Last week, Governor Hochul acted on a half dozen pieces of legislation that covered drinking water supply safety, lead exposure in school drinking water, plastic waste, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, pesticides in kids’ summer camps, and fracking wastes being used on roadways. She got five right and one – the use of fracking waste – wrong.
Arguably, the most important bill that the governor approved was legislation that closes a longstanding federal loophole that excludes public water systems serving fewer than 10,000 residents from having to test for emerging contaminants. By including a specific list of emerging contaminants that have already been detected in New York’s larger public water supplies and giving a deadline for the New York Health Department to establish the testing list, this bill ensures that all New Yorkers will know what’s in their public water sources. (You can review contaminants found in NYS’s drinking water at https://www.nypirg.org/whatsinmywater/.)
In the second bill, the governor also approved legislation dealing with lead exposure. Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly damaging to infants, toddlers, and young children. In addition to causing myriad health problems, lead exposure harms children’s intellectual development and causes behavioral issues, interfering with their ability to focus and learn in school. Unfortunately, many public school buildings in New York have lead components in their plumbing systems resulting in children being exposed to lead in the school water used for drinking and food preparation. This legislation tightens testing requirements and standards pertaining to lead in school drinking water.
A third bill deals with protecting agricultural soil. According to the world’s leading climate scientists, in order to limit global warming to under 3o F, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut dramatically across all sectors. In order for New York State to achieve its critical climate goals and align with global climate science, cutting pollution from the agricultural sector will be a key component. This legislation would help accomplish this by enabling the Department of Agriculture to encourage soil health practices. Such practices will help store and draw carbon from the atmosphere, prevent erosion and flooding, and protect water quality.
The fourth addresses plastic waste by banning hotels from providing small plastic bottles that contain shampoos, conditioners, and more. According to a recent report, experts estimate that over eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans each year, and that amount is likely to increase dramatically over the next decade unless states and nations act. The average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year. Reducing plastic waste by hotels will help deal with the growing tide of plastic use.
The fifth deals with pesticide use in summer camps. Pesticides are designed to have a biological impact. Consequently, pesticides have toxic effects not only on the plants and animals they are designed to control, but also on humans.
Infants and children are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides for a variety of reasons: The liver and kidneys in infants are incapable of removing pesticides as well as adults, children take more breaths per minute increasing inhalation of pesticides, infants and children spend more time on the ground where pesticides are applied, and children are more likely to put various objects in their mouths.
This bill extends current restrictions on the use of pesticides in schools and day care centers to summer camps. Camps often offer outdoor environments that include manicured lawns, playgrounds, and athletic fields. The bill dramatically reduces the use of pesticides around children.
Unfortunately, the governor chose to veto legislation that would ban some of the most dangerous oil and gas wastes from being used on roadways. Currently, the state permits the use of oil and gas liquid wastes as road deicers used by 33 different cities, towns, and private entities. Any waste generated through the extraction of oil or gas can contain a number of pollutants, such as toxic chemicals, metals, excess salts, and carcinogens like benzene, as well as radioactive materials.
Using this waste on highways threatens water quality in New York – run-off from rain or snowmelt could lead to the dangerous constituents in the waste ending up in waterways or groundwater. The governor’s veto of this bill undermines her other thoughtful actions to safeguard drinking water supplies.
This last issue is likely to come back in the new legislation session – unless the Hochul Administration acts using its regulatory power to ban the use of fracking wastes on roads. Here’s hoping that she does so.
Posted by NYPIRG on December 13, 2021 at 8:29 am
This week marks the beginning of winter. For the next few months, the northern hemisphere will experience its coldest temperatures. For some, the cold will add to the misery of dark days. For outdoor winter enthusiasts, the next few months will be their happiest.
Winter brings big snowstorms, most notably in the New York and New England regions, with powerful storms coming up the Atlantic coast known as “Nor’easters.” These snowstorms generate heavy snowfalls in the northeastern United States. They also cause the biggest increases in storm surges along the coasts. These wintertime storms push more water to the coast, raising high tides even higher than normal.
The world’s climate experts have estimated that global mean sea levels rose by nearly eight inches between 1901 and 2018. Those experts, part of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, posit that sea levels have risen faster over the last hundred years than any time in the last 3,000 years.
They expect this acceleration to continue. They estimate an additional 6-9 inches of sea level rise by 2050. Beyond 2050, however, the amount of sea level rise will largely depend on future greenhouse gas emissions.
That increase will be felt differently across the globe. So, while the IPCC report’s projections are for global mean sea level for the year 2100, most coastal locations will experience a sea level rise within plus or minus 20% of the projections.
Here in New York, the state’s coasts have seen a sea level rise of 9 inches in the past century.
In places like New York City, climate change mitigation measures can be complex because of the city’s location and its extensive network of underground subways. With more than half of the state’s residents living in the greater New York City area, sea level rise puts people, resources, and the state’s economy at risk. The state is planning over $4 billion in sea level rise solutions, which include raising roads, fixing drainage, and building seawalls.
And the speed of rise has accelerated over the last ten years and it’s now rising by 1 inch every 7-8 years. Around Battery Park in Manhattan, it took the sea level 48 years to rise by 6 inches. Scientists forecast that in just the next 14 years, the sea level will have risen by another 6 inches.
Which brings us back to “Nor’easters.” As mentioned, those storms are so intense that they drive higher-than-normal sea level rise. In places like New York City, these tides are typically over a foot and a half higher than normal high tides. Add that to the increase in sea level due to global warming, and New York is looking at unprecedented flooding.
Higher sea levels create a higher launching point for storm surge. These seemingly small changes in sea level rise are enough to turn what were 100-year storm surges into much more frequent events. In fact, in a third of 55 coastal sites studied throughout the U.S., 100-year storm surges will be 10-year or more frequent events by 2050.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall and caused $50 billion in damages to the state. Without sea level rise, Hurricane Sandy’s 9.5-foot storm surge would have been lower. This past August, the remains of Hurricane Henri drenched New York with record-busting torrents of rain. Little more than a week later, the remnants of Hurricane Ida shattered even those records, causing devastating damage and tragically drowning New Yorkers in their own cars and homes.
Of course, sea level rise and more powerful storms are not the only threats. Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, responsible for more than 130 deaths in New York City per year, a number that could increase to more than 3,300 deaths annually by 2080 if action is not taken. Already the number of days reaching 90°F or more is increasing from an average of 18 per year between 1971 and 2000 to as many as 33 days per year by the end of the current decade. This extreme heat necessitates urgent investments in mitigation and adaptation and will lead to a substantial increase in medical costs, ER visits, and deaths.
Researchers have estimated the potential economic costs of climate change impacts: “Climate change costs in New York State for the sectors analyzed in this report may approach $10 billion annually by mid-century.”
As Governor Hochul and state lawmakers plan to return to take up policymaking duties next month, it is vital that they continue to ensure that New York leads in the nation in battling climate change and that those most responsible for the world’s damaged planet – the fossil fuel industries – are forced to wind down their business model and to underwrite the costs needed for the state, the nation, and the world to mitigate and adapt to unfolding climate catastrophes.
Let’s make this winter memorable for something other than “Nor’easters” – enhanced climate protections paid for by the oil and gas industries.
Posted by NYPIRG on December 6, 2021 at 10:29 am
As 2021 heads toward its conclusion, Governor Hochul faces a public health decision deadline. Under New York State law, legislation that was approved during the 2021 legislative session must be sent to the governor for her approval by the end of the calendar year. Nearly 900 bills were approved by both houses of the Legislature during the 2021 legislative session and this week many bills moved to the governor’s desk for her consideration.
There are critically important issues that remain undecided as of mid-December. One example is legislation to better monitor the state’s drinking water supplies.
Lawmakers approved legislation to close a longstanding federal loophole that excludes public water systems serving fewer than 10,000 residents from having to test for emerging contaminants.
Emerging contaminants are unregulated chemicals that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes may have negative health consequences and are suspected to be in drinking water supplies. A recent analysis of EPA data by the NY Public Interest Research Group found that 176 water systems, impacting 16 million New Yorkers, detected one or more emerging contaminants. Every region in New York State had been impacted.
However, this is based on limited data. Over 2,000 water systems, serving nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers, have not had any emerging contaminant testing of toxic chemicals on the most recent federal emerging contaminant testing list.
In response, state government vowed to close the loophole that exempts small water systems from testing for emerging contaminants. In 2017, legislation was approved that directed the Department of Health to create an emerging contaminant monitoring list for New York and require testing in all systems regardless of size.
Four years later, the law hasn’t yet been fully realized.
This past month, EPA announced that PFOA and PFOS, two toxic chemicals that have polluted drinking water across New York, are far more dangerous than the agency previously thought. PFOA and PFOS are just two out of over 9,000 chemicals in the PFAS family, many of which are linked to similar harmful health effects, persist in the environment, and build up in the human body. 29 PFAS are currently detectable in drinking water using EPA-approved methods.
After reviewing the latest scientific evidence, EPA determined that safe levels of exposure to PFOA and PFOS are actually thousands of times lower than their current health advisory level.
Yet despite the risk to public health, New York only requires testing and notification for two PFAS chemicals in drinking water (PFOA and PFOS). There are no drinking water protections for the other 27 detectable PFAS, despite well-documented risks to human health from these chemicals as well.
New York learned about the testing loophole the hard way. In 2015, it became public knowledge that a small community in upstate New York, Hoosick Falls, had unsafe levels of the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), exposure to which has been linked to developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.
Hoosick Falls has a population of approximately 3,500 residents – so it didn’t learn of the toxic chemical in its water supply that was making residents sick as a result of EPA or New York State required testing. Instead, Hoosick Falls discovered this chemical because of the initiative of a private citizen concerned about illnesses in the community.
The longer New York goes without statewide emerging contaminant testing of public drinking water supplies, the longer residents remain in the dark about the quality of their water, and the greater the chances residents get exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants. (By the way, to see what contaminants are found in drinking water supplies, NYPIRG offers that information on its website, https://www.nypirg.org/whatsinmywater/.)
The state Department of Health could require testing of these chemicals, but it has failed to use its existing authority to comprehensively do so. As a result, this past June the State Legislature approved legislation that requires every water utility to test for the remaining 27 PFAS chemicals as well as testing for 13 other contaminants identified by the US EPA as posing risks to human health.
Governor Kathy Hochul has not yet signed this bill, but the legislation was delivered to her office last week. The clock is now ticking on that drinking water testing legislation. It’s clear that the longer New Yorkers are exposed to PFAS or other contaminants in their drinking water, the greater the likelihood that such exposure could make them sick. Requiring comprehensive testing is the first step toward protecting New Yorkers. If you don’t know you have a problem, you can’t address it. Let’s hope that first step is taken.
The expanding investigations into the actions of former Governor Cuomo and his top staff continue to dominate the news. Just when we thought we knew all there was to know, last week’s release of the sworn depositions of the governor and his top staff gave new insights into how the former Administration handled harassment complaints and how the governor and his top aides acted.
Those insights are not pretty.
A report by the Albany Times Union illustrated just how the former Administration viewed oversight by the state’s Inspector General. According to the deposition of Linda Lacewell, previously a top lawyer to the former governor and then head of the state’s Department of Financial Services, the New York State Inspector General cannot investigate complaints against the governor or his top aide. That’s a breathtaking position for a top government lawyer.
First, some background. What is New York’s Inspector General?
Under New York State law, the Inspector General is empowered to receive and investigate “complaints concerning allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest or abuse in any entity under the Inspector General’s jurisdiction.” In short, the IG is supposed to investigate things like harassment of staff or misuse of public resources for personal
gain – just the types of allegations leveled against the former governor.
Inspectors General are common across the nation. At the federal level, they have similar responsibilities. As you may recall, they did their jobs so well that former President Trump fired some for being too honest.
States and municipalities have IGs too. New York has more than one – there is one for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state’s Medicaid program, for example. Yet, New York’s law creates a wrinkle. New York State’s Inspector General is chosen by the governor and reports to the governor’s highest-ranking aide – known as the Secretary to the Governor.
Since the IG is chosen by and effectively reports to the governor, according to Lacewell, that person has a conflict of interest and therefore cannot investigate the governor. That legal logic may contribute to the failure of the IG’s office to compel the former governor to testify about how he learned of a secret conversation by the members of the state’s top ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. While Lacewell’s opinion may not be legally binding, as a practical matter that’s the way it plays out.
And given their relationship, Lacewell’s thinking mattered a lot to the governor. In the criminal trial of another former top Cuomo aide who was subsequently convicted of corruption and sent to prison, Lacewell was described as the “Minister of Defense” – charged with protecting the former governor from scrutiny.
Again, Lacewell’s opinion is just that, opinion. The IG under former Governor Paterson was incredibly active, leading scores of investigations including allegations against Paterson and his aides. That inconvenient fact was not part of the apparent worldview of the Cuomo team.
But the revelations highlight a problem in state law: The Inspector General is simply not independent of the governor and his or her aides.
A review of “best practices” nationwide shows that New York’s law falls far short of what the public should expect. Such “best practices” call for IGs to be structurally independent of the entity they are responsible for monitoring, strict standards for who can be selected (no former top aides to the governor for example), and guaranteed funding to ensure that the agency is financially secure enough to do its job without fear of budgetary repercussions.
Of course, that rule should apply to all state-funded watchdog agencies.
Government officials are public servants. They are not royalty or dictators. They take an oath to serve the public. In order for the public to have confidence that tax dollars are being used appropriately and that public servants are behaving ethically and professionally, there must be independent oversight of all public servants – even the governor, and for that matter, even the President.
Accountability is key to maintaining public trust in democracy. State ethics agencies and inspectors general are central to maintaining that accountability. The public expects that government officials are accountable for efficient, cost- effective government operations and to prevent, detect, identify, expose and eliminate fraud, waste, corruption, illegal acts and abuse. You won’t trust the outcome when the umpire is beholden to the home team.
The depositions released last week show that New York has strayed too far from these basic principles.
It’s now up to Governor Hochul and the state Legislature to establish “best practices” for ethics enforcement. The most obvious first step is to ensure that IGs are not directly accountable to the governor or his or her top aides.