Archive for October 2022

New Yorkers Vote on Proposition 1, the Environmental Bond Act

Posted by NYPIRG on October 31, 2022 at 10:58 am

Ten years ago this past weekend, Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast, resulting in the deaths of 44 New Yorkers, flooded 50 miles of New York City land, left 2.5 million residents without power, resulted in $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity, rendered 35,000 residents temporarily or permanently displaced, and caused damage to more than 9,100 homes.

In the decade since then, storms are only getting stronger and more deadly.  Recently, Hurricane Fiona hammered Puerto Rico and the Canadian Atlantic Coast and Hurricane Ian devastated Florida.  Ian was the deadliest hurricane to strike the state of Florida since 1935, killing over 130 in Florida, with regional economic damage estimated to be more than $50 billion.

As the planet heats up from the burning of fossil fuels and other releases, the resulting warmer sea surface temperature intensifies tropical storm wind speeds, giving them the potential to deliver more damage if they make landfall.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted an increase in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, alongside increased hurricane wind speeds.  Warmer sea temperatures also cause wetter hurricanes, with an estimated 10-15 percent more precipitation.

Global warming is continuing and a hotter planet will lead to deadlier storms – and costs to all of us.

At the state level, New Yorkers are already seeing those rising costs.  A 2022 federal report found that over the past 20 years, New York State experienced so many severe storms due to the climate crisis that it has cost the state $50-$100 billion, and up to $20 billion for just 2021.  Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it will take $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone.

Of course, significant policy changes must be enacted to curb and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.  But in the meantime, societies across the world will have to “harden” their infrastructures in order to adapt to more intense storms.

On the ballot for New York voters this election is a question about whether to allow the state to issue bonds to finance capital projects to do just that.  The question is on the back of the ballot that voters receive during the early voting and General Election.

Proposition #1, the “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act of 2022” provides $4.2 billion in financing for the state to adapt to the threat posed by global warming as well as improve the state’s drinking water infrastructure and other environmental projects.

If approved this year, the Bond Act would provide:

  1. $1.5 billion in climate change mitigation (which includes funds for zero emission school buses);
  2. $1.1 billion in restoration and flood risk reduction;
  3. $650 million in open space land conservation and recreation;
  4. $650 million in water quality improvement and resilient infrastructure.  Many New Yorkers don’t realize that the infrastructure that delivers drinking water is over one hundred years old and still uses dangerous materials such as lead pipes; and,
  5. Requires that 35% of the total funds must be spent in disadvantaged communities.

If approved, Prop #1 positions New York to leverage federal funding already approved in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act.  The Bond Act could provide the matching funds which would help local government bring more federal dollars into their communities for critical infrastructure upgrades.

Of course, $4.2 billion is a lot of money, but it’s not enough to cover all the costs of climate change as well as upgrading water supply infrastructure. It is, however, a really good start.

When it comes to the worsening climate catastrophe, it’s hard not to get depressed.  But action is warranted, not hand wringing.  Prop #1 moves New York forward in adapting the state to the growing climate threats. 

This year not only are statewide elected officials and lawmakers on the ballot, the environment is too.  Flip over the ballot and show your support.

Democracy in Peril

Posted by NYPIRG on October 24, 2022 at 9:48 am

A poll released by the The New York Times and Siena College Research Institute last week found that over 70 percent of registered voters agreed that democracy was “under threat.”  Given the lies about the 2020 election being “stolen,” such a view is not surprising.  But the poll found that the concerns ran much deeper. 

Most of the survey’s respondents viewed the deepest threat to democracy resulted from government corruption.  That survey result resonates with anyone who has followed ethics, campaign financing, and elections in America.  Put simply, those polled raised the longstanding public concern about the basic functioning of a democracy, as the Times put it; “whether government works on behalf of the people.”

The concern that democracy is threatened by government that does not work on behalf of the people can manifest in many ways, for example issues about whether elections are run to benefit the public at large or more specifically for the benefit of the two major political parties.

That issue raised itself last week with a report over how the Dutchess County Board of Elections is complying with New York State law. 

First some background.  Under New York State law, polling locations must be located on college campuses if 300 or more students who live on campus are registered to vote in New York.  The law states when a “contiguous property of a college or university” has 300 or more registrants, who are registered at that address, the polling place must be provided on the site or at a location “recommended by the college and agreed to by the board of elections.”  Those locations must have been designated by August 1st of 2022.  These college-based polling sites are for the General Election only; the requirement does not apply to the location of early voting places.

Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie, has about 1,000 registered voters.  In August, the college emailed the BOE requesting a polling site and providing a suitable location on campus.

Nothing happened.

As reported in the Poughkeepsie Journal, as of last week (three weeks before Election Day) the Dutchess County Board of Elections has yet to designate a site because of failure of the Republican and Democrat commissioners to agree on a location.  This failure to follow the law reportedly stems from the Republican Commissioner who simply doesn’t want to agree.

Under New York’s system of running elections, the two major political parties have to agree on an issue of consequence.  When they don’t, gridlock follows.  In this case, that partisan gridlock has blocked the placing of a polling place for Vassar college students – even though the law requires it.

Why is it that months have lapsed between the legal requirement that the polling sites be identified by August 1st and last week?  Apparently, no one in authority seems to care enough about this (other than the college students and apparently the administrators at Vassar) to crack the whip. 

When it comes to youth voting, the Vassar case is just one of too many.  The political class is very willing to have young adults fight in wars, but when it comes to their constitutional right to vote, that willingness too often evaporates.

As the Times poll showed, “whether government works on behalf of the people” is at the heart of public dissatisfaction with their own democracy.  That voter cynicism is too often borne out by the behavior of those who are elected and the partisan – or ideological – motives of public officials.

American democracy has always been a work in progress, with all of us obliged to continue the work of taking care of this grand experiment in self-governance.  Let’s hope that those charged with running Dutchess County’s elections agree to follow the law.

Trash Talk

Posted by NYPIRG on October 17, 2022 at 9:38 am

Americans generate a lot of trash. According to the EPA, in 2018 the United States produced nearly 300 million tons of waste.  Unfortunately, most of that waste ends up in the nation’s landfills. 

Americans recycled or composted 93 million tons for a nationwide recycling rate of only 32%. And the U.S. ranks quite low when compared to the rest of the world in recycling percentage. Of the major countries that track recycling data, the United States is ranked number 25 out of 32.

When it comes to generating trash, the holidays are the worst:  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans add up to 43% extra waste to that total, or an additional 29 pounds per week, nearly doubling the typical weekly total.

The move to a greater reliance on home deliveries – particularly during the pandemic – hasn’t improved the situation at all.

Here in New York, we generate a lot of trash too. Over 4.5 pounds per person per day.  According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, New Yorkers get rid of their trash by dumping it in approximately 30 landfills, which accept approximately 6 million tons per year of solid waste; sending 2.5 million tons to be burned at garbage incinerators; and ship another 6 million tons to locations outside of the state.

The state does a better job than most when it comes to recycling, ranking tenth in a recent survey. (Although the state’s recycling rate has been decreasing since 2012.) But doing better than most in a nation that does poorly means there is a lot of room to improve.

While the trash picture is lousy, it is getting worse. One of the major destinations for the nation’s plastic trash had been China. That all changed in 2018, when China put an end to importing the world’s waste. The policy, called National Sword, has created a serious trash problem in America.

Now the question is:  Where is the nation’s trash going to go?

In her State of the State address this year, Governor Hochul advanced a plan. She called for the establishment of an “Extender Producer Responsibility program” (EPR), which she said would require “producers, not taxpayers, to cover the cost of recycling.” The governor looked at the waste issue through the prism of climate change and pointed out that the waste industry accounts for about 12% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

EPR is the environmental principle that focuses on the entire lifecycle of impacts resulting from a product – including its packaging. EPR makes the producer of a product responsible for the waste generated from the extraction of raw materials to the production and distribution of the product, to when the product is discarded.

Governor Hochul did advance an EPR plan, but it went nowhere in the Legislature since it relied too heavily on industry to self-regulate

The governor also ignored New York’s best EPR program – its Bottle Deposit Law. That 40-year-old law requires consumers of certain beverage containers (by and large carbonated beverages and drinking water) to pay a nickel deposit. When the consumer returns the empty container to the retailer, the consumer redeems their nickel deposit. It’s worked well over the decades with about two-thirds of covered containers being redeemed – a far better performance than the state’s anemic recycling rate. 

The nation’s – and the state’s – solid waste problem, however, isn’t going anywhere. Dumping the waste in landfills threatens drinking water supplies and fouls the land; burning the trash increases air pollution, creates toxic ash and contributes to global warming; sending it somewhere else doesn’t work anymore – who wants it?

Instead, New York and the nation should look toward developing a “circular economy.” A circular economy is based on three principles: (1) Eliminate waste and pollution; (2) Circulate products and materials (at their highest value) through reuse and recycling; and (3) Regenerate nature, which is the product of the first two principles. A key component to any EPR program is a firm statutory goal, such as reducing packaging waste by 50% over a decade.

When it comes to developing a system in which “producers, not taxpayers” are on the hook for the costs of dealing with packaging waste, New York lawmakers should build upon an existing successful program – its Bottle Deposit law – by expanding it to include all alcohol and non-carbonated beverage containers. And they should establish a strong EPR program to further reduce non-beverage container packaging wastes.  The mounting solid waste crisis is not going away, and lawmakers must quickly move to address it when they return to Albany in January. Smart solid waste policy will save money, improve the environment and advance its climate goals. There is no time to waste.

What’s in Our Water?

Posted by NYPIRG on October 10, 2022 at 12:52 pm

Last week, the New York State Department of Health’s Drinking Water Quality Council announced its recommended levels of testing for PFAS levels in drinking water supplies.

In 2017, the state established the Drinking Water Quality Council as the place to examine threats to drinking water and to recommend steps to protect the public from those posed by “emerging contaminants” – that is, threats posed by newer chemicals and those not traditionally regulated in drinking water.  The release of its long-awaited recommendations on PFAS was supposed to put New York at the forefront of drinking water protection.

According to public health advocates, it doesn’t.

PFAS, which stands for per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of chemicals used to make non-stick cookware, fabric waterproofing, and fire suppression foam, among other things. Yet, there is mounting scientific evidence that the substances pose a serious threat to the public health even at a near zero level.

This past summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posted guidance on this issue.  According to the EPA, PFOA and PFOS (two of the biggest members of the PFAS family) are considered to be hazardous, so much so that evidence of those chemicals in drinking water supplies or in other locations can trigger the location be considered a Superfund site.  That designation is reserved for areas of toxic pollution that pose serious health risks to humans.  The federal Superfund program has been on the books for decades and requires that the companies responsible for the toxic mess are on the financial hook for cleaning it up.  States like New York have their own Superfund for sites that are considered hazardous but are not hazardous enough to meet the federal standard.

The EPA’s proposed designation of PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances is based on significant evidence that those chemical compounds present a substantial danger to human health.  PFOA and PFOS can accumulate and persist in the human body for long periods of time and evidence from laboratory animal and human epidemiology studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and/or PFOS can cause cancer, reproductive, developmental (e.g., low birth weight), cardiovascular, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

According to the EPA, there are hazards when exposed to these chemical compounds at the lowest levels.  In other words, there is no detectable level at which exposure to these chemicals can be considered safe.

However, considering PFAS compounds to be unsafe is one thing, enforcement is another.  The guidance set by the EPA does not require that drinking water supplies be cleaned up.  Only that at higher levels can sites be considered to be so toxic that they qualify as Superfund sites.  

The EPA is considering setting national standards for limiting exposure to PFAS, but until then, states are taking action.  As of now, there are a wide range of standards being set.  For example, one of the smallest allowable concentrations is 5.1 parts per trillion (California; PFOA only) and others that have no standards at all.  Much of this state action occurred prior to the recent EPA announcements.  It is expected that lower levels will be eventually set.

This is not some sort of academic exercise.  PFAS has been found all across the nation.  Here in New York, some communities have suffered from health impacts associated with exposure to PFAS. 

PFAS has been identified in drinking water supplies across New York: On Long Island, in the Village of Hoosick Falls and the Town of Petersburgh (both in Rensselaer County), and in the City of Newburgh and Town of New Windsor (both in Orange County).  Given the widespread use of PFAS, this is likely the tip of the iceberg for New York.

It was within this rapidly changing regulatory climate that New York’s Drinking Water Quality Council made its recommendation that set a limit for testing for 23 chemical compounds found in the PFAS family and identified in drinking water.  The proposed regulations would set a maximum contaminant level for four PFAS chemicals to be 10 parts per trillion, but as mentioned earlier, the EPA has found that there is no safe level of exposure.

More rigorous testing, reporting and public notification would be required under DOH’s proposals, which now enter a 60-day public review and comment period before they can be adopted.

Moreover, PFAS is not the only toxic threat to the state’s drinking water.  Due to its industrial legacy, there are other threats.  For people interested in examining such threats, NYPIRG has a web-based tool to examine threats that have been reported to federal and state authorities.  If you are interested, go to and click on the link for “What’s in my water.”

New York is renowned for having high quality drinking water and an abundance of fresh water.  The public has the basic expectation that when they go to turn on the tap, the water will be safe to drink. Only the strongest protections can make that happen and it starts with PFAS standards that are the most stringent in the nation.  No one wants their drinking water to be “sort of” safe.

Mail in Voting in New York

Posted by NYPIRG on October 3, 2022 at 9:09 am

Last week, the New York Conservative and Republican parties filed a court challenge to the way New York’s absentee ballot system works.  Under the New York Constitution, voters can request an absentee ballot if they are:

qualified voters who …may be absent from the county of their residence … or… who … may be unable to appear personally at the polling place because of illness or physical disability

At the outbreak of the pandemic, laws were passed that allowed New Yorkers to obtain an absentee ballot due to fear of getting exposed to COVID.  Thus, voters were able to get absentee ballots more easily.  That sensible option became a big problem for conservatives in New York. 

New York is, after all, a “blue” state with the Democrats enjoying a significant voter enrollment edge.  Anything that makes it easier to register and vote can put conservative candidates at an electoral disadvantage. 

Yet, voters seemed to like the option.  And it’s not unheard of in America.  Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., offer “no-excuse” absentee voting, which means that any voter can request and cast an absentee/mail ballot, no excuse or reason necessary.  Eight states conduct elections entirely by mail (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington), which means voters do not need to request a ballot, and instead automatically receive one.

Like any other form of voting, mail-in voting has both pluses and minuses. 

On the plus side: voter convenience and satisfaction.  Public polling shows widespread support.  A survey from Pew Research Center showed that 65% of voters support no-excuse absentee voting. 

Also, there are financial savings.  Jurisdictions may save money because more absentee/mail voting can reduce the need to staff and equip traditional polling places.  A 2016 study of Colorado’s experience by the Pew Charitable Trusts found costs decreased an average of 40% in five election administration categories across 46 of Colorado’s 64 counties (those with available cost data) after it implemented all-mail ballot elections.

There are minuses as well.  Sending ballots by mail increases printing costs for an election as well as an increase in voter “errors” or “residual votes.”  When marking a ballot outside of an in-person voting location, a voter can potentially mark more selections in a contest than the maximum number allowed (called an overvote) or mark fewer than the maximum number allowed, including marking nothing for one or more contests (called an undervote).

But the big concern is the potential for coercion.  If a voter is marking a ballot at home, and not in the presence of election officials, there may be more opportunity for coercion by family members or others.  Yet, there have been few examples.

As the Pew survey found, in the states with a history of promoting mail-in voting, the public likes it.  And in New York, during an unprecedented pandemic, allowing voters to send in their ballots through the mail (not to mention minimizing the COVID exposure of polling place workers) made a lot of sense. 

Unfortunately, the option of making it easier to cast a ballot through the mail has been swept up in the Big Lie about elections in America – namely that the 2020 election was “stolen” and that our voting system is untrustworthy.  Those claims are entirely without merit and yet, as any propogandist will tell you, if you recite the Big Lie enough times, it will gain some public support.

That support was evident in last year’s voting on whether to amend the state Constitution to allow easy mail in balloting.  Despite the polls indicating public support, a multi-million-dollar campaign buried the proposal, leaving in place New York’s current system.

This year, the pandemic-related provision is once again in place.  Thus, due to COVID, voters can obtain a mail-in ballot simply by requesting one.  It is that provision that is under legal challenge.  The plaintiffs have argued that since both the New York Governor and the President have stated that the COVID pandemic is behind us, the use of COVID as a legitimate absentee ballot excuse is illegal.

Despite the comments by the Governor and President, last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people in Central New York mask in public due to a rise in COVID-19 levels.  New York is averaging 25 deaths and more than 4,500 new cases each day as of early October.  As the weather gets colder and people are more likely to be indoors, COVID is spreading, with nine counties in New York State are now at a high risk.  And it will get worse.

We are by no means done with COVID.  So, what should the absentee/mail-in voting policy be?  That will be left up to the courts.  Voting is a constitutional right, protecting voters from a serious illness should be a reasonable accommodation.  Let’s hope the courts see it that way.