The Divide: We should have a constitutional right to clean air, water

The Divide: We should have a constitutional right to clean air, water


Over the past few weeks there has been much news about environmental protections (or the lack thereof), a local landfill accepting non-approved waste, a New York City sludge train (referred to as a “poop train” by the mayor of Parrish, Alabama) stinking up a small town in Alabama for months, and Governor Andrew Cuomo finally announcing his legislation “banning single-use plastic bags.”  What all of these issues have in common is that they continue to show the huge divide between elected officials talking about problems, but not actually taking the necessary actions to address those problems. As the environment-related rally in Albany on April 23 emphasized, it’s time to “walk the talk” and enact laws to protect our environment.

At a recent breakfast put on by Environmental Advocates of New York, we were asked if we had the constitutional right to clean air and clean water. The unacceptable answer was NO. The New York State Constitution does not provide for environmental rights. The state constitution does provide legal protections for free speech, freedom of assembly, the establishment of lotteries, and even legalized gambling. But, it does not decree that the citizens of New York have a right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.

In 2017 Assemblymember Steve Englebright and Senator David Carlucci introduced legislation (A.6279 and S.5287) to amend the constitution to guarantee the citizens of the state have environmental rights.  The amendment is only 17 words long and simply states: “Environmental rights. Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” The legislation passed the Assembly last year, but died in the Senate. This year, the bill passed the Assembly on April 24. Now it’s back in the Senate’s hands. One would think that with the water contamination in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh and the state’s poor air quality as reported by the American Lung Association, that passage of this legislation would be a no-brainer. But, it seems our state senators would rather condemn us to an unhealthy environment than upset their corporate campaign donors.

Landfills and municipal solid waste was a marriage made out of necessity. However, it’s getting near the time that the separation process should begin. This will not be easy, for “breaking up is hard to do,” but landfill space is limited and we need to start planning now for when there is no more space to dump our trash. Setting a goal of zero waste by a date certain will push governments to find ways to end the use of landfills and implement alternative programs. However, elected leaders at all levels of government seem to be reluctant to “talk trash” unless it’s about their political opponents.

Locally, landfills have been making news, some of it bad, and the rest of it even worse. The bad news is that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has approved a limited expansion of the Colonie landfill. And, as Albany’s Rapp Road landfill gets closer to its end date, the preferred option to replace the landfill is to build a transfer station for the city’s waste. This option will not end the landfilling of municipal solid waste, it will just ship the waste to another landfill for burial. For its part, Troy is looking to impose a trash fee. In Mayor Madden’s words, the fee is to be “a first step in changing our relationship with garbage.” Troy, according to an article in the Times Union, only recycles six percent of its trash, so the fee is to act as an incentive for city residents to toss out less, and recycle more. As for the ‘worse’ news, we have the Dunn C&D Landfill in Rensselaer taking in municipal waste originally destined for the Colonie landfill, in violation of its DEC permit. Even though Dunn C&D was not fined for this violation, DEC Commissioner Seggos has promised the residents of the city of Rensselaer that ‘we will proceed with enforcement” if the violation continues.

Thus, municipal solid waste disposal, like most problems we face, has our government administrations taking the easy way out and kicking the problem down the road. Elected officials are unable to act proactively, they wait until the problem reaches epidemic proportions (see the opioid crisis) before taking steps to solve the problem.

Speaking of landfills and shipping waste from one municipality to another, we have the odorous example of the New York City “poop train.” In 1988, the federal government banned NYC from dumping sewage sludge in the ocean, so NYC started to ship it to landfills located in southern states who were more than happy to get paid for taking in NYC’s excrement. Fast-forward to January 2018, when one of these “poop trains” sat for more than two months in the town of Parrish (pop. 982), before finally being emptied of its sludge and ending the “unbearable stench.” On the bright side, NYC has set a goal of sending “zero waste” to landfills by 2030. Will this actually happen? Only time will tell if NYC will meet its goal. The residents living near these sludge-accepting landfills can only hold the noses and hope the city keeps its word.

The communities where these sludge-accepting landfills are located are really “sacrifice zones,” a Cold War euphemism I heard spoken by Delaware Riverkeeper’s Maya Van Rossum at the Environmental Advocate’s breakfast to describe low-income, mostly communities of color where the pollution-spewing industrial activities that provide energy to wealthy, mostly white neighborhoods are located. The term is a perfect two-word description of what an Environmental Injustice community similar to Ezra Prentice Homes and Sheridan Hollow in Albany is – a “sacrifice zone.”

In the face of all of these issues: no constitutional right to breathe clean air and drink clean water in New York state; landfills filling up and/or violating their DEC permits; and NYC shipping poop to poor communities, we have Governor Cuomo making his big Earth Day announcement that he will be introducing legislation to ban single-use plastic bags. Welcome news, for sure, but his proposal has so many exceptions that its impact will be minimal at best. Again, Cuomo takes the path of trying to satisfy the enviros and not upset his corporate campaign donors. As I have written before, you can’t have it both ways. Either you are working toward saving our planet by enacting meaningful rules and regulations or you’re not. Half-and-half may be good for coffee, but it’s not good for our waistlines nor the environment.

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