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Albany mayoral forum on environmental health raises candidate concerns and election tension

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Albany mayoral forum on environmental health raises candidate concerns and election tension

On Thursday, Sept. 7, the Environmental Advocates of New York and League of Women Voters hosted a forum at the First Unitarian Universalist Society covering environmental health and protection in the city of Albany.

The forum consisted of the five mayoral candidates—incumbent Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin and Ward 15 Common Councilman Frank Commisso Jr. from the Democratic Party, and Dan Plaat and Bryan Jimenez from the Green Party. The event offered candidates an opportunity to address the public on a specifically environmental platform, where they could show their expertise in past and present city policy as well as explore alternative measures to approach sustainability and conservation.

Questions submitted to The League of Women Voters touched on The Port of Albany “bomb trains,” the diesel trucks in Ezra Prentice, plasticware pollution and banning, permitted sewage overflows into the Hudson River and reservoir protection, the potential state-funded microgrid in Sheridan Hollow, and a future in renewable energy, among other subjects.

Mayor Sheehan came prepared with data to back up her successes in environmental planning over the past years—such as the Energy Smart Community Plan, the $1.4 million awarded to the city by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to reduce Albany’s carbon footprint and the city’s investment in the water and sewer departments.

“Under my administration, the city went from spending about $2 million a year in capital expenditures to $3 million and then we aggressively sought additional state funding at an additional $6.8 million,” said Sheehan. “Over the next years as we implement our consent order, we will have invested more into that infrastructure than in the prior 10 years.”

Commisso explained how the city must address their financial issues in order to be better prepared to tackle environmental projects—such as his proposed solar farm on city-owned land in Coeymans, which he hopes would begin making a profit for Albany in as soon as eight years and offer a renewable energy source that other cities could buy into.

He also said that he sees a “silver lining” in the major federal cuts to environmental agencies and legislations from the Trump administration. “Cities, municipalities can play a lead role now,” he explained.

McLaughlin maintained her focus on the low-income communities of Albany, repeatedly saying that major planning decisions, such as the proposed Sheridan Hollow microgrid, cannot be made without having the local community involved every step of the way. She also advocated for better public education on issues of sustainability, waste and renewable energy technology.

Plaat highlighted his knowledge in city planning and sustainability as an architect and introduced plans to push for more “soft infrastructure,” or greenery design, throughout the city. This would include the de-paving of some roads and the reduction of pesticides on lawns to introducing more plants and subsequently improve air quality. He also called for a local public power authority and a more participatory government, including a community advocacy energy agreement–which residents could opt out of–to collectively act on carbon reduction.

Jimenez looked to address the role that Albany has played in contributing to climate change. “There is a legacy of industrialism that we in Albany have been a part of,” he said.

He also pushed for more of an “environmentally conscious use of infrastructure,” suggesting that the city minimize energy waste in homes by pushing for better insulation and implementing more solar panels.  

The majority of the informational panel was spent discussing energy efficiency and transportation.

Both Green Party and Democratic candidates called for a significant decrease of cars on the road in Albany, pushing for more public transportation usage and bike lane usage that would include more protected bike lanes. A commuter tax was also suggested by both Plaat and Jimenez, which could fund local energy efficient programming.

Another major focus was on what McLaughlin calls “environmental injustice communities” where residents are put at risk when nearby constant contaminants–such as the oil trains–are introduced. Each of the candidates shared their concerns regarding the potential of Sheridan Hollow, where the state plans to install a new energy source.

The proposed microgrid would power over 90 percent of the Empire State Plaza and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but the generator would still burn fossil fuels.

“We remember ANSWERS,” Sheehan said in reference to the state-owned trash burning incinerator that posed significant public health and air quality danger in the ‘80s and ‘90s, explaining that the city would explore all of their options.

“As we talk about projects that are coming on to the city, we need to make sure that people are at the table, that they are in the room,” McLaughlin said. “We can’t make a decision on something and then bring it to the room after the fact.”

While all of the candidates attempted to show how their administration would best address Albany’s environmental issues, only a few candidates–Sheehan, Commisso and Plaat–appeared comfortably familiar with each subject and prepared to offer concrete examples of policy and planning with the budgeting to back it up.

For example, when asked about the NYPA Five Cities Energy Plan and whether a candidate would support immediate implementation of the recommendations, only Sheehan and Commisso had read and agreed to the plan.

When asked about introducing an anaerobic digestion waste management plan, in which waste is broken down by microorganisms, Jimenez said he had only heard about the process from Plaat earlier that day. McLaughlin did not seem familiar with the process either but said she would be open to discussion.

During a number of “Yes or No” questionings of the panel, there seemed to be a general consensus of agreement on popular subjects.

All five of the subjects agreed to pursue the constitutional right to clean water, to implement new building energy codes and enforce environmental impact statements for all incoming developments in the city, to promote locally grown produce to be served in school, to combat urban blight with projects such as community gardens and to commit to reviewing all potential climate impacts while in office, including the proactive testing of emerging contaminants.

When asked whether single-use plastic bags are a pollution problem, all candidates agreed that they are. However, when asked whether they would again pursue the county-wide plastic styrofoam ban that fell apart last year, only Commisso said that he would not enforce a new ban.

Prior to the forum, a representative of The League of Women Voters clarified that the event was an informational forum and not a political debate. But that did not stop the Democratic candidates from taking a few jabs.

Frank Commisso Jr., who has been overtly critical of the Sheehan campaign, took the opportunity to bring up the third-party PFM and S&P Global financial reports that he says are telling of the financial crisis in Albany. He also criticized the incumbent for not “standing up to New York state” enough when it comes to state-funded planning projects such as the Sheridan Hollow microgrid.

Commisso said his “greatest concern right now” is the Aug. 16 Request for Proposals (RFP) to construct a transfer station replacing the Rapp Road Landfill within the next three years, suggesting that the city bring in solid waste management professionals to survey city data and budgeting more closely.

“Can we have a much higher recycling rate here? I think we can,” he said. “I think we have to have a much higher rate of organics and then we wouldn’t have to be sending trucks, in the very near future, across New York state everyday with very low fuel efficiency.”

While Commisso suggested the station would be located in the Pine Bush, the RFP reads that it would be adjacent to the current landfill location.

“We issued that after there was a meeting with all of the Common Council members. They were invited to attend,” Sheehan explained. “After walking them through that RFP we then, by law, held a 90-day comment period in which time everybody had the opportunity to comment on that. Those comments were then incorporated into it, and it does include organics. It does ask for a regional approach… It is not an RFP for a transfer station at the Pine Bush and anybody who reads it will understand that.”

Carolyn McLaughlin made a point to mention the Siena poll in her closing remarks as she made her case for mayor. “Don’t read what’s out there in the polls, what this fake poll is, as I call it. Don’t pay attention to it, because we know for a fact that it was wrong. I want to encourage you to participate. Here you have a real opportunity to make sure that the next mayor of Albany is one who cares about you.”

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