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Only Major Climate Bill Passed in Albany This Year Wilting on Hochul’s Desk

Legislation that got through the State Senate and Assembly in early May would make it harder for polluting facilities to move into poor and minority neighborhoods that have traditionally been dumping grounds.

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There are higher rates of air pollution in neighborhoods around highways like the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York could have the power to say ‘no’ to more pollution in certain communities — but first the governor must get on board.

The bill is the only major legislation focused on both fighting climate change and protecting vulnerable communities that has cleared both the state Senate and Assembly since the passage of the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019.

The bill passed in early May and aims to put a stop to racially discriminatory practices that have allowed polluting facilities — like warehouses and waste transfer stations — to proliferate in neighborhoods where non-white and lower-income people live, exacerbating their health and environmental burdens.

Multiple studies have found that people of color are generally exposed to higher levels of air pollution because of the legacy of urban planning that disproportionately harms minorities.

Several environmental groups and state lawmakers on Tuesday called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign the bill, following a letter sent to her office last week. 

“We need better outcomes,” said Mychal Johnson, a co-founder of the community organization South Bronx Unite. “Before the pandemic, we were dying at high rates. Asthma hospitalizations and chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, you name it, we’ve been suffering because we’re breathing it. We’re living it, like so many communities like ours around the state of New York.”

A spokesperson for Hochul did not answer whether she would sign the bill.

“We are reviewing the legislation,” spokesperson Leo Rosales wrote in an email. 

The 2022 legislative session ends on Thursday. Other key climate bills are still being negotiated, sources close to discussions told THE CITY.

‘Life-Saving and Life-Changing’

If the environmental impact legislation is signed by the governor, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would not be able to approve any permits for facilities that would contribute to any “disproportionate and inequitable pollution burden” in places that are majority non-white or low-income, or have high pollution rates already.

In other words, the DEC would examine the cumulative burden of pollution that a neighborhood shoulders. The DEC then would factor that into any decision it makes about granting or rejecting a facility or a permit a facility might apply for, in addition to considering the discrete impact the facility would create. 

That could mean for example, a power plant might not be approved for a neighborhood with a highway cutting through that is already the site of a garbage dump and a wastewater treatment plant.

“The community that I represent is all too familiar with the toxic and hazardous conditions that have existed for decades and decades,” said Sen. Cordell Cleare, a co-sponsor of the bill, who represents parts of Upper Manhattan including Harlem and Washington Heights. “We’re constantly bombarded with these things. It’s time to stop, it’s time to fix the things that have been broken for so long, it is time to stop dumping on certain types of communities.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at the LIRR new “East Side Access” terminal beneath Grand Central, May 31, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Environmental justice advocates argue that the bill offers another way for the state to further the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which requires New York to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2050, while prioritizing reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in areas that need it most.

“The CLCPA doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as we know. We need bills like this to bolster the CLCPA because it literally will save lives,” said Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “This bill being signed into law would be a life-saving and a life-changing bill for so many New Yorkers that are surrounded by a myriad of attributes that result in exacerbated environmental racism.”

The CLCPA specifies that “disadvantaged communities,” a term still under review by the state, must receive at least 35% of the benefits — counted as total statewide spending — of clean and energy efficiency programs. Such communities would be subject to the analysis required under the cumulative impacts bill.

If Hochul signs the bill, DEC would need to set specific rules before being able to implement the law, including coming up with a definition for what constitutes a “disproportionate and inequitable pollution burden,” as the bill says.

New York would be the second state — after New Jersey — to have such strict rules on the books.

Green Laws Stuck on Red

Meanwhile, as the legislative session winds down, other climate bills are still up in the air.

For instance, the Build Public Renewables Act, which would authorize the New York Power Authority to build renewable electricity generation and sell the energy to residential customers, was amended last week in an attempt to ameliorate concerns about creating an uneven playing field for the renewable development market. A Senate Committee advanced the amended bill Tuesday.

A waste transfer station on Liberty Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. July 27, 2021.

Christine Chung/THE CITY

Supporters — notably a group of environmental organizations and DSA chapters known as the Public Power NY Coalition — say that proposal would help ensure the state achieves its CLCPA mandates of 70% renewable energy by 2030 and zero emissions electricity by 2040. 

Several pieces of legislation aiming to decarbonize buildings — which account for a third of emissions in the state — are uncertain.

The fate of the All Electric Buildings Act, which would require new buildings across the state to be all-electric — similar to a local law New York City passed last year — is unclear. 

And the Assembly has yet to vote on a bill that would update building codes and appliance efficiency standards in an effort to conserve energy. 

But a newly introduced bill aiming to decarbonize buildings by encouraging the development of efficient, zero-emissions thermal energy networks — which can use green methods for heat — may have some legs, sources say. An array of environmental and labor groups, as well as utility companies, are supportive.

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